Jarrod Polson, victory formations, and one walk-on’s unforgettable night

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NEW YORK – Anyone who watches football at any level knows what the ‘Victory Formation’ is.

When the game is out of reach and the final minutes and seconds simply need to be bled off the clock, the winning team surrounds the quarterback while sticking one player — a safety valve, if you will — a good ten or twelve yards behind the line of scrimmage, immediately kneeling the ball when it is snapped. When you see that formation, it’s a sign: the clock may still be ticking, but the fat lady’s vocal chords are all warmed up and ready to go and the traffic jam outside the stadium is already going to cost you 45 minutes of travel time.

College basketball has its own version of the ‘Victory Formation’; the walk-ons. When a game is all-but over, when one team is up 20 with a minute and a half left, the winning coach will empty his bench, giving his walk-ons — the guys that pay their own way to school to simply for the right to get worked over every day in practice by the scholarship players — a chance to hoist a few shots in front of their fans. These guys usually end up being some of the most popular players on the team, with students sections across the country chanting their name, calling for the signal that the win is in the books.

Jarrod Polson was that guy for Kentucky the last two seasons. The Nicholasville, KY, native only got a walk-on offer from the Wildcats because Elisha Justice opted to go to Louisville. He accepted because, well, what do you really expect a Kentucky kid to do when his other offer was for an NAIA school in Ohio? And while Polson has since earned his way into one of Coach Cal’s leftover scholarships, the junior point guard entered the 2012-2013 season having played 28 games and a grand total of 62 minutes, and not a meaningful minute among them.

But the story changed on Friday night at the Barclays Center.

The ‘Victory Formation’ became the difference-maker.

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“Absolutely zero went into thinking about him before the game,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said after his Terrapins suffered a 72-69 defeat at the hands of the Wildcats. “When he subbed a the scorer’s table, I said, ‘Who is that?'”

That’s how well-known Polson was entering Friday night. The opposing head coach didn’t even bother including him on the scouting report, which is more telling than you probably realize because head coaches are usually exhaustively thorough when it comes to putting together their scouting reports.

Why?

Because they don’t want to run into a situation where they get surprised by someone coming off the bench. They don’t want to lose a game because they glossed over the 11th man or because a player they didn’t realize was a shooter hit four threes. The thinking goes, ‘you can never be too prepared’, and on Friday, Maryland wasn’t prepared.

Polson’s stat-line is decent enough — 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting from the floor, three assists to no turnovers and a pair of free throws in 22 minutes. But those numbers don’t begin to quantify the impact that the former walk-on had on the outcome of the game. He stabilized Kentucky at the point guard spot, as Ryan Harrow was battling the flu and Julius Mays was dealing with a leg injury he suffered this week, getting the team into their sets and protecting the ball against the Maryland pressure.

More importantly, however, he came in and provided Kentucky with a measure of hustle and grit. He tipped in a missed layup by Nerlens Noel with five minutes left to give Kentucky a 63-62 lead. A little more than a minute later, he ripped a rebound away from Pe’Shon Howard and finished a reverse layup around Charles Mitchell the put Kentucky up 67-63. And with Kentucky up just 70-69 with eight seconds left after yet another offensive rebound for Maryland (they finished with 28) led to a layup from Alex Len, Polson stepped to the line and calmly sunk two free throws to put the Wildcats up three and force Howard to hunt for a three on the final possession of the game; Howard never ended up getting a shot off.

All this came in front of a packed house at the Barclays Center.

In a game played on ESPN.

On College Hoops’ opening night.

In front of one of the wildest atmospheres you’ll see in a November college basketball game.

“He was the whole key to the game,” Turgeon said. “He gave them confidence.”

“I’ll be honest, I was nervous,” Polson said in his first-ever postgame press conference. “At the same time it was good to get out there and play. It was definitely a lot of fun for me tonight.”

I bet it was.

This story, at face value, is terrific and the kind of thing a movie script can be based on. Polson, a former walk-on, takes center-stage for a team and a program known for churning out lottery picks, particularly at his position. A dream come true, right? Someone get Disney on the phone.

But the story carries with it so much more significance. Kentucky is not deep in their back court. At all. It’s Harrow, and out-of-position Mays and Archie Goodwin, and Polson. And what Polson proved tonight was that if he gets called upon, be it because Harrow is in foul trouble or injured or simply playing poorly, he’s more than capable of stepping in and running this team.

He proved to everyone that Kentucky can win when he’s running the show. He made the most of his opportunity, and he likely played his way into the Kentucky rotation. I doubt Cal will hesitate to call on Polson when he’s needed.

“He was ready for his opportunity, and as a coach, there is nothing that makes me happier,” Calipari said after the game. “The whole team was hugging him in there. I’m proud of Jarrod. Jarrod’s someone who comes every day and does the thing that he needs to do. He doesn’t try to do more and that’s what he did tonight. He was just outstanding.”

I doubt there will be anyone that neglects to include him on the scouting report again this season. And that, in-and-of-itself, is an accomplishment.

The ‘Victory Formation’ is now honest-to-god member of Kentucky’s rotation.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

DiVincenzo to test NBA draft waters

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The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player is testing the water to see if the NBA will let him have next.

Villanova announced on Thursday that Donte DiVincenzo, who scored a career-high 31 points in the national title game two weeks ago, will declare for the draft but will not hire an agent so as to preserve his collegiate eligibility.

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” stated Wildcats head coach Jay Wright. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

At this point, every relevant Villanova player has announced what their intention is for the NBA draft. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are heading to the NBA. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are returning to school, and barring a shock decision to transfer or to declare for the draft, both Collin Gillispie and Jermaine Samuels will be as well.

That leaves Divincenzo and Omari Spellman, both of whom have declared for the draft without signing with an agent.

What those two decide to do could end up determining who college basketball’s best is next season, and there is no easy answer here for either of them.

We’ve been over this with Spellman already. At 6-foot-9, Spellman is already an elite shooter for someone his size. He’s also down to a svelte 245 pounds, which has turned him into a much more impressive athlete than he was when he first arrived on the Main Line. He’s more explosive. He’s a better shot-blocker and rebounder. He’s much better at attacking closeouts. As it stands, he’s got a shot to be a late first round pick should he remain in the draft.

The same can be said for DiVincenzo, a 6-foot-5 off-guard that is a streaky scorer with range and athleticism that can operate in ball-screens actions. He’s coming off one of the most impressive performances that we’ve seen in a national title game ever, which means that the memory that everyone is going to have of DiVincenzo is of him raining threes, blocking players at the rim and winking into the crowd.

But that’s not what NBA scouts are going to necessarily remember of him.

Villanova might not have been appointment viewing for people that wanted to see the next crop of superstars play, but they were on every NBA team’s list of teams that they needed to see. That’s what happens when there are five potential pros on the roster, including a top ten pick in Bridges and the National Player of the Year in Brunson.

Put another way, NBA personnel are very, very familiar with DiVincenzo. They know that he is a streaky scorer that can go off for 20 points in a half or 30 points in a game. They know that he is a plus athlete that can guard different positions despite the fact that his wingspan is all that massive. They also know he is a guy who doesn’t always make great decisions and can really struggle when he has to handle the ball against pressure.

Like Spellman, DiVincenzo is a borderline first round pick that is more likely to end up being snatched up in the early-to-mid second round if they remain in the draft.

The question they need to ask themselves is whether or not they feel that where they get selection could be drastically altered by returning to school, and I do think there is some reason to believe that to be the case. For starters, there are places where both players can improve to become more highly-regarded prospects, but I think what would be more relevant is that, if they both do return, we could be looking at a situation where both are preseason all-americans for a preseason top three team.

Hell, I don’t think it’s out of the question that DiVincenzo will be a Preseason National Player of the Year candidate, Spellman a preseason first-team all-american and Villanova the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

And if that is the case, one would assume that DiVincenzo — like Bridges and Josh Hart before him — could put together the kind of season that would see him shoot up draft boards. The same with Spellman.

But what’s more relevant for this space is that with both of those players in the fold, Villanova would once again be a national title contender and the overwhelming favorite to win a down-Big East conference.

Without them?

Villanova will be looking at having a rotation that includes three sophomores and three freshmen, which is not close to the ideal for Jay Wright. They’ll still be good, but we won’t be talking about them as a team that can win a title, at least not at the start of the season.

There is no hyperbole when I say that what DiVincenzo and Spellman decide to do will drastically alter the landscape of college basketball for the 2018-19 season.

Paschall, Booth to return for senior seasons with Villanova

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Villanova announced on Thursday morning that both Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be returning for their senior seasons with the Wildcats.

“Phil and Eric are two of the cornerstone leaders of our team,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “Each of them is widely respected by their teammates, not just for their talent, but for the kind of young men they are. We are thrilled that they will help lead our team again as seniors.”

Booth, a 6-foot-3 guard, is a redshirt senior from Maryland that averaged 10 points and 3.2 boards this past season despite dealing with a broken bone in his shooting hand that held him out of the lineup for seven games during Big East play. Paschall is a 6-foot-6 wing that started 38 games and averaged 10.6 points and 5.3 boards this past season, his second with Villanova after transferring into the program from Fordham.

There was some question that Paschall could end up declaring for the NBA draft. He is a redshirt junior and, given his athleticism, defensive versatility and ability to knock down threes, he would be an intriguing second round prospect and a potential role player at the NBA level. His return is big, because he is the piece that allows Villanova to be able to switch 1-through-4 without much worry, and he’ll allow sophomore Jermaine Samuels and incoming freshman Cole Swider to have another year before they are relied upon as heavily as they would be without him.

As good as Booth is at the college level, he’s not likely to end up being an NBA player. The concern is that, like Mikal Bridges and Paschall, is he was a senior from an education perspective, meaning that he could have earned his degree and moved on to the professional ranks. He will be an important veteran presence on the floor, and the kind of program piece that will help bridge the gap between last season’s title-winning team and the next crop of youngsters on the roster.

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

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Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

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TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.