He doesn’t stand on tables and make speeches. He’s no lock to make a start or even see much in the way of minutes on an uber-talented roster, but Jarrod Polson will be a crucial part of Kentucky’s projected success this season. How does a former walk-on matter so much to a team full of future NBA lottery picks?
“I’ve been around the block a couple of times now,” Jarrod Polson told NBCSports by phone. “I’ve seen some successful seasons and some not-so-successful seasons. I’m just letting them know how hard we have to work to achieve our goals.”
The successful season would be 2012, when the Wildcats captured the national title in New Orleans, and sent six players into the NBA draft’s first round. Then there was last year’s team, which had no less talent, but stumbled to an NIT berth and a humiliating first-round road loss at Robert Morris.
What’s the difference between wild success and the letdown of missing the tournament? Where’s the magic ingredient?
“Definitely just working as hard as we can in practice,” Polson said. “Coach Cal is always telling us we need to have a good practice or a great practice. You can’t have a bad one. So the biggest thing is just trying to have a great practice every day. If we can do that, we’ll get a lot better and we’ll be there at the end.”
All this may sound like so much brown-nosing, but we have to understand that Kentucky is in another universe as far as expectations are concerned. There are guys riding the bench in Lexington who would be the best player at most DI programs. Success for this team is almost the humdrum. The fear of any sort of letdown could be crippling. It doesn’t help that the school of hard knocks convenes on day one.
“We’ve got Michigan State coming up in less than a week,” Polson said with a rueful chuckle in his voice. “We’re looking forward to that. We’re going to be put right in the fire, and I think that’s going to help us.”
The holiday season means something different for Polson and his mega-talented teammates. While everyone else is scarfing pumpkin pie and doing last-minute Christmas shopping, the Wildcats will be hard at work.
“Yeah, all the students go home for break and we’re doing two-a-days and three-a-days. It’s a hard time of year, but we’re together 24/7 during that time, and it brings us closer together. I think that really helps us in March and April.”
Turning talented individuals into a team means working while others take downtime. With the relaxation of NCAA rules, summer break is actually boot camp for college basketball players. And the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day can set the table for a real feast in March and April. There’s a perception that Coach Cal and his staff earn titles during the live recruiting period, but last year’s disjointed effort points to the notion that some genuine, down-in-the-mud coaching, as well as a full buy-in from the troops, is equally important.
So what’s the role of a Jarrod Polson? He drew praise for his play in Kentucky’s exhibhition win over Transylvania. “I thought Jarrod (Polson) was good. All that Jarrod did was run really hard and push the ball,” Calipari told reporters after the game. “We have a lot of guys that running has always been good enough, and, this is me. You can’t be on the court then. You know, it’s okay, but you can’t be out there.”
Polson’s role is to lead by example, then, and not be crushed when his minutes end up going to someone more naturally talented. He can deal with that.
“I came in here as a walk-on and I never knew if I would hit the court at all,” Polson said. “Personally, I’m not the most vocal person in the world. I like to bring someone to the side and tell them what they need to know. A lot of this stuff they’ve never even heard of, and I’ve been here for three years now and I know the offense in and out. I’m not a crazy vocal leader, but I can show them where to be and I think that can help.”
Which brings me to a crucial point. Jarrod Polson is the glue guy for this Kentucky team. He’s reminiscent of Josh “Jorts” Harrellson in some respects. So doesn’t he need a quality nickname of his own?
“Man, I don’t wear jean shorts, so I don’t know that an article of clothing will give me my nickname,” Polson said, laughing. “I don’t have one right now, so we’ll see.”
Well, that just won’t do. So I’m going to lend a hand. You remember the film The Avengers, where all these supremely talented, larger-than-life superheroes had to work together to win the day? Do you remember how much trouble they had finding the chemistry they needed along the way? There was one guy, just an ordinary guy, really, who did the little things to pull the team together. That’s who Jarrod Polson will be for this year’s Wildcats.
So I’m calling it right now: The senior from Nicholasville has a new nickname.
Who else can get Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor et. al together? That’s what needs to happen for Kentucky to end up celebrating in a hail of confetti this April.
The rest will be history. But for now, it’s the future we’re all very much looking forward to.