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Kentucky needs super glue to avoid another letdown

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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.

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“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.

Agent Polson.

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.

Whitehead to stay in NBA Draft

Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead (15) shoots past Xavier forward Sean O'Mara (54) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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Seton Hall sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead has signed with an agent and will remain in the NBA Draft, according to multiple reports.

Whitehead averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game last season for Seton Hall, which went 25-9 and reached the NCAA tournament. He likely projects as a second-round pick with a bit of a shaky shot, but a high usage and assist rates. His strong finish to the season likely lifted him on some draft boards, but his inefficiency will cap his ceiling in June’s draft.

The loss is significant for the Pirates as Whitehead was so much of their offense, but they’ll bring back Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo. It’s a group that will miss Whitehead’s playmaking, but is still a solid enough foundation that Seton Hall will still likely be competitive in the Big East and vying for another NCAA tournament berth.

Hart returning for Villanova’s title defense

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Villanova’s title defense just got a whole lot stouter.

Josh Hart, the leading scorer of the Wildcats’ national championship team, will return for his senior season, he announced on Twitter.

The decision for Hart to return is a major boost for Villanova in its quest to become the first back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. Hart, a 6-foot-5 guard,  averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from 3-point range.

Most draft pundits had him pegged as a potential end-of-the-first-round pick in next month’s draft though he could have certainly slid into the second should he had decided to forego his senior season. Instead, Hart will be a potential first-team All-American exhausting his eligibility in Philadelphia.

The 2016-17 season is taking shape nicely, and Hart returning to Villanova only increases the strength of the field at the top. Title game hero Kris Jenkins as well as Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are also back for the defending champs while the super recruiting classes of Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, Kansas’ returning core along with Josh Jackson and a solid group of teams including North Carolina, Arizona, Louisville and Wisconsin make for an intriguing upper-tier of teams that could very well make for a top-heavy season following last year’s free for all.

College basketball isn’t the NFL. Parity doesn’t equal strength and quality, and when the sport has a handful high-quality teams, it is at its best. It’s looking like that is a possibility for the 2016-17 campaign.

UConn duo returning to school

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Connecticut may have lost its 6-foot-7 wing scorer but it is keeping its defensive stalwart and leading scorer.

Center Amida Brimah and guard Rodney Purvis have withdrawn their names from NBA Draft consideration and will return to the Huskies for another year, the school announced Tuesday.

The decisions from Brimah, a 7-foot center, and Purvis, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, help soften the blow dealt by Daniel Hamilton’s decision to sign with an agent and leave school despite having some shaky draft stock. The Huskies may not open the season as a top-25 team, but they won’t be far behind and will be one of the AAC’s favorites, along with Cincinnati.

Brimah averaged 6.5 points per game last year, but blocked 2.7 shots per game. He missed 11 games last season with a broken finger. Purvis registered 12.8 points per game while shooting 43.4 percent from the floor.

Neither Brimah or Purvis were among those invited to this month’s NBA Draft combine nor were either expected to be drafted should they have kept their names in the draft.

Gonzaga’s Karnowski returning for fifth year

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The man in the middle is returning to Gonzaga.

Przemek Karnowski will return to the Bulldogs for his final year after a medical redshirt waiver was granted allowing him a fifth season in Spokane, the school announced Tuesday.

“I’m excited to be coming back,” Karnowski said in a statement. “After talking with the coaches, my parents and the team, I decided this was the best decision for me. I still have a ways to go with my rehab, but I’m staying positive about the upcoming season.”

The 7-foot-1 Karnowski, a Poland native, would have, at minimum, had professional opportunities overseas, but instead will return to play for the Bulldogs once more after a back injury limited him to five games last season. He averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a junior in 2014-15.

With Karnowski returning along with  Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, Gonzaga coach Mark Few will be having newcomers Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Norvell, Johnathan Williams II and Zach Collins joining an experienced and talented group.

Gonzaga (shocker) will be the West Coast Conference favorite once more, but the Bulldogs will also be fielding a team that should open the season in most everyone’s top-15.

Michigan St. at Duke highlights ACC/Big Ten Challenge

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A matchup in Durham of likely top-10 teams is the headliner of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, whose schedule was released Tuesday.

Michigan State, expected to open the season in the top-10, and Duke, the presumptive preseason No. 1, will meet Tuesday, Nov. 29, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the most intriguing contest of the 14-game event.

The Spartans are losing Denzel Valentin, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello, but the recruiting class of Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward is one of coach Tom Izzo’s best and has Michigan State positioned as one of the Big Ten’s favorites.

Izzo’s recruiting class, though, pales in comparison to what coach Mike Krzyzewski is bringing to the Blue Devils, with Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden, Frank Jackson and Javin DeLaurier in their 2016 class, which is why, when paired with the likes of Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Luke Kennard, make Duke nearly everyone’s No. 1 heading into next season.

Krzyzewski is 9-1 all-time against Izzo’s Spartans.

Among the other highlights of the conference competition is Syracuse at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) Pittsburgh at Maryland (Nov. 29), Purdue at Louisville (Nov. 30) and Ohio State at Virginia (Nov. 30).  

Monday, Nov. 28

Minnesota at Florida State

Wake Forest at Northwestern

Tuesday, Nov. 29

Syracuse at Wisconsin

Michigan State at Duke

Pittsburgh at Maryland

Iowa at Notre Dame

Georgia Tech at Penn State

N.C. State at Illinois

 

Wednesday, Nov. 30

Purdue at Louisville

North Carolina at Indiana

Ohio State at Virginia

Virginia Tech at Michigan

Rutgers at Miami (Fla.)

Nebraska at Clemson