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.
“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.
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.