In recent years there haven’t been many players who have spent a full four years in the Kentucky basketball program, due in large part to the skill level of the players recruited by John Calipari and his coaching staff. However one exception to that is recently graduated guard Jarrod Polson, who along with Jon Hood was one of two seniors on the team that reached the national title game.
College provides a high number of experiences and that can likely be said for Polson, who saw a lot of talent wear a Kentucky jersey during his four seasons in Lexington. Those experiences result in entertaining stories, and according to the Central Kentucky News Polson is considering writing a book about his time as a Wildcat.
One factor in the decision-making process was former Wildcat Jeff Sheppard, who wrote a book about his experiences playing on two (1996 and 1998) national champion teams. Sheppard won Most Outstanding Player honors at the Final Four in 1998.
While Polson had many tell him he should write a book, he was not sure until Sheppard, the Final Four MVP in UK’s 1998 national championship season, told him he should also.
“He wrote one and recommended I do it,” Polson said. “I feel like I learned a lot and may as well do it. There are some very good behind the scene stories I can share. I am hoping to share stories that people do not know about and a lot of personal experiences that I have been through. I don’t think there has really been a book like that since coach (John) Calipari has been here. Twany (Beckham) wrote a book, but it was about his life and not that much about UK. It will be interesting to see how it goes.”
Hard to envision Polson’s book matching one such as Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” when it comes to controversial details (and yes, Bouton wrote the book himself), but this would likely be an interesting read for Kentucky fans who cheered on he and his teammates over the last four years.
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.
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.
To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.
Last Season: 21-12, 12-6 SEC (t-2nd); Lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT
Head Coach: John Calipari (5th season at Kentucky: 123-26 overall, 52-14 SEC)
Key Losses: Archie Goodwin, Ryan Harrow, Kyle Wiltjer, Julius Mays
Newcomers: Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, James Young, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, E.J. Floreal
– G: Andrew Harrison, Fr.
– G: Aaron Harrison, Fr.
– F: James Young, Fr.
– F: Julius Randle, Fr.
– C: Willie Cauley-Stein, So.
– Bench: Dakari Johnson, Fr.; Marcus Lee, Fr.; Derek Willis, Fr.; Alex Poythress, So.; Jarrod Polson, Sr.
They’ll be good because …: Kentucky is just so ridiculously talented. I don’t care if every relevant player on the roster is a freshman or a sophomore because there are eight players on this team that could one day end up being a lottery pick. Seriously. Think about that for a second. Have we ever seen a recruiting class as strong as the one that Coach Cal landed this season? Have we ever seen a team amass quite the amount of talent that Kentucky has amassed this year?
It starts with Julius Randle, a powerful, athletic lefty that will overwhelm just about every opposing big man he faces this season. He’s also capable of crossing people over 20 feet from the basket and dunking on them. The Harrison twins form a big back court as talented as anyone. James Young has already got NBA scouts drooling over his scoring ability. And between the other four big men on the roster, there is more size and athleticism than most programs see in a decade. Even the unheralded Derek Willis has spent the preseason getting praised for his skill level.
NBA teams might as well get a six month lease on an apartment in Lexington for the season. When there is that much NBA talent on a roster, it’s hard not to win a lot of games.
But they might disappoint because …: There are two major concerns for this Kentucky team. The first is their perimeter depth. Outside of the Harrisons and Young, there really aren’t any guards on the roster. I love Jarrod Polson, but if Kentucky is going to go undefeated this season, he won’t be playing many minutes. Alex Poythress has a ton of talent and potential, but he’s likely the first perimeter player off the bench, and he’s not a perimeter player. That could become a problem if there are injuries or foul trouble.
The bigger issue, however, is how this team ends up coming together. All that youthful talent is impressive, but it overlooks just how valuable contributions from veterans like Josh Harrellson, Patrick Patterson and Darius Miller have been over the years. There’s also the issue of overcrowding. There are only so many minutes, particularly in the front court, and so many shots to go around. Will a roster full of alpha males with one eye keeping tabs on their NBA Draft stock be willing to accept a secondary role?
Outlook: Kentucky won the 2012 National Title with a roster that was chock full of talented freshmen and sophomores. Their two best players, the top two picks in the NBA Draft, were both in their first season of college ball when they led the Wildcats to title No. 8. But what people forget about Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is that while they were “stars”, they did so by excelling as glorified role players. Anyone that has ever paid attention to a Coach Cal press conference has heard him talk about the fact that while that 2012 team produced the No. 1 and No. 2 pick in the draft, they were fourth and fifth on Kentucky in shots taken.
Well, Davis was a defensive presence in the paint first and foremost, scoring quite a few of his points off of dunks that came via an alley-oop or an offensive rebound. He didn’t need the ball in his hands and he didn’t need plays called for him. The same can be said for Kidd-Gilchrist, who was that team’s junkyard dog. He defended, he rebounded, he provided a physical presence. He was a glue guy that just so happened to be an insanely talented basketball player.
Does this group have enough guys willing to accept a role and play their part, even if it means they won’t have the ball in their hands in crunch time? Even if it means that they only get 12 minutes a game? The chemistry on this team is what will be the determining factor in how far this group ends up going.