Star-studded UK discovers unlikely hero in tense opening night win
BROOKLYN -- We came to Barclays Center for an unveiling, to see the reloaded version of defending-champ Kentucky against Maryland, and have some of our questions answered. Where would Ryan Harrow rank in coach John Calipari's procession of elite point guards? Would No. 1-ranked recruit Nerlens Noel be able to hold his own against major-conference big men? Are these Wildcats worthy of being regarded as a title contender? Friday was when preseason speculation could finally be put aside, and first impressions could be formed.
But the juggernaut was not prepared to offer answers. What it served up was a fairy tale, an improbable-but-satisfying distraction: a story starring someone who never appeared in the Terrapins' scouting report, who was not mentioned in scores of national-media preview stories about Kentucky and its brigade of future Lottery Picks. And for good reason, because junior reserve point guard Jarrod Polson -- the star of the Wildcats' 72-69, season-opening victory -- was heretofore irrelevant.
This is Polson's tale, in brief: In April 2010, he turned down a scholarship offer from Liberty and committed to Kentucky as a walk-on. UK, he said then, "has been my dream since I was a little kid." Polson had a nice high-school career as a 6-foot-3 guard in Nicholasville, Ky., but any reasonable person could see what the next phase of that career was, given the way Calipari recruits: Polson would be a practice player who made occasional appearances in blowouts. He'd be along for a nice ride.
His father, George, was realistic about that, telling the Lexington
"But he's also confident enough to know he'll push them hard and, if playing time comes, then he's there."
In Polson's freshman season, he played 31 total minutes.
In Polson's sophomore season, he played 31 total minutes.
But playing time, meaningful playing time, came on Friday. And Polson, as his father stated long ago, was there.
Harrow sat out of Thursday's practice with the flu, and although he started at the point, he played it like someone who was too sick for prime time. By the 16:15 mark of the first half he had zero points, zero assists and was yanked from the game after committing his second foul.
The score was 7-7, and rather than move freshman Archie Goodwin to the point, as many suspected Calipari would do, he called on Polson, who had been told to be ready in the event Harrow faltered.
This was not a substitution Maryland coach Mark Turgeon expected. "Absolutely zero thinking" went into Polson before the game, said Turgeon, who didn't even know what year the backup point guard was. "He subbed in at the table and I said, 'Who's that?'"
Turgeon, like many of us outside Kentucky, had been unaware of Polson's work in the obscure (and Kyle Wiltjer-produced) YouTube instructional video, "White Boy Academy." It was uploaded on Nov. 1, 2011, and although it contains a couple of impressive alley-oops, it did not earn Polson many minutes during UK's title season.
Once on the floor in Brooklyn, Polson began assembling the first non-comedic reel of his career -- with a nine-minute, 13-second stretch of steady and opportunistic point-guard play. He had two assists, a layup, an offensive-board-and-putback, and zero turnovers as Kentucky opened up a 31-20 lead. After a brief rest, Polson returned with 3:20 left and shepherded the Wildcats to a 49-36 lead into the break. They were plus-10 while he was in the game.
The record should also note that something strange happened to the Barclays Center's main scoreboard during Polson's first extended bit of playing time. The screens that displayed team lineups began malfunctioning, jumbling in weird and/or misplaced characters over player names. For example, Kentucky freshman Willie Cauley-Stein became "Bauley-Stein" and then "Baulex-S'ein." One could either chalk it up to working out the kinks of a new arena -- the place just opened last month -- or as a Moonlight Graham-esque phenomenon.
I prefer the latter, because of what happened to Polson's name: The P was replaced with something similar to a typographic "dagger" symbol. Was it sending a message?
Or would Polson just be a footnote, swept away by the great Maryland comeback that opened the second half? The Terrapins went on an early, 15-0 run to tie the game at 53-53 -- all but five points of it occurring while Polson was in his normal position: on the bench.
But Harrow, who would finish the game 0-of-4 from the field with zero points and two assists, fell out of favor with Calipari again in the second half, as did, at times, freshman Alex Poythress, and Polson found himself back on the court with 8:13 left. It was from here that his role became even more improbable -- as a weapon twice more on the offensive glass.
His offensive rebound of a Nerlens Noel miss with 5:09 left gave the Wildcats a 64-63 lead. A few possessions later, Polson crashed the glass again after a Noel missed free throw, and ripped the ball from Pe'Shon Howard's hands just after he grabbed the rebound. Polson then converted an absurd, spinning, pumping layup around the Terps' trees, putting UK up 67-63 with 3:44 left. Turgeon called it the "play of the game."
It was the dagger that halted Maryland's second-half momentum.
And with seven seconds left in a 70-69 game, it was Polson who took an inbounds pass from his White Boy Academy co-star, Wiltjer, accepted the Terps' foul, and stepped to the free-throw line. In three years he had gone from walk-on to center stage at the Barclays Center, with the season opener in the balance. "I'll be honest," Polson said. "I was nervous."
But on the exterior, he was Polson Ice. Swish and swish. 72-69. Noel altered the Terps' final shot attempt -- an awkward, leaning three by Howard that didn't even get released before the buzzer -- and the game was over.
Subsequently we were treated to the surreal experience of sitting at a press conference where Turgeon called Polson "the key" to Kentucky's victory. Of holding a box score that said he went 4-of-5 from the field for 10 points, three assists and no turnovers in 22 minutes. Of hearing Calipari call Polson "outstanding," and of seeing Polson next to him, grinning the whole time, unable say much more than that he'd been "waiting on the opportunity."
We left with very few big-picture answers about Kentucky. We need to see Harrow play healthy before judging his point-guard prowess. Noel and Cauley-Stein were "manhandled" -- Calipari's word for it -- by Maryland's Alex Len, who had 23 and 12 points, but UK's twin towers have plenty of room to grow. We can't really tell who will be the Wildcats' offensive star. Maybe Wiltjer, maybe Goodwin. Or if Polson will ever play a big role again. But he gave us an improbable story, and on opening night of a long season, we can settle for that.