They burst through paper hoops bearing larger-than-life images of themselves, springing onto the Rupp Arena hardwood one last time in a Kentucky uniform. The paper is pre-slit and has been for years, making it easier on the honorees to tear it open and make their emotional appearances. The hoops could have been made of solid oak on this night and somehow, the evening’s honored guests would have found a way to break through. They’ve spent their entire college careers doing just that.
Like so many dozens of seniors before them, during the pre-game ceremony prior to the final home game of the season, against Alabama, John Hood and Jarrod Polson listened to “My Old Kentucky Home,” all smiles as they were drinking it all in. Their night. Their moment. Two Wildcats who were not hamburger All-Americans out of high school, who will not play in the NBA, who are not the reasons pro scouts make their way to Lexington.
Their paths leading up to this night were different and yet similar, so much so that Hood lists hanging out with Polson as one of his career highlights. Much of that time has been spent elbow to elbow on the Wildcats’ bench.
But on this special occasion, they played. John Calipari chooses to start seniors on Senior Night. Not all coaches do. The man who initially recruited Hood to UK, Billy Gillispie, ignored the tradition, no doubt thinking any coach who gives into such sentiment could be labeled as “soft,” even though he wept openly from time to time.
Both made the most of their early minutes. Hood took the first open shot he had and buried a three-pointer from the corner, causing an early explosion from the normally docile Rupp Arena audience.
He missed two more before Polson got his chance, connecting from the left side of the key for another trey. Alas, mistakes ensued and subs came for them during the first TV timeout. But their six points were all Kentucky could muster for the first 6:52 of the half, Dakari Johnson finally adding to the total with a free throw.
He was robbed of another triple later in the game, Hood tossing in a desperation heave that TV replay showed had beaten the shot clock. Hood’s shot hit the front of the rim, bounced straight up and then dropped through the net. The officials called it off, Hood frantically pointing at the replay monitor. But they never bothered to review a reviewable play, thus depriving him of one more memory from Senior Night.
Hood would have participated in the ceremony last year, had it not been for a massive knee injury he suffered during the summer of 2011. It set his career back and rendered him a spectator, albeit one with an incredibly good seat, during the 2011-12 season. Hood sat the bench in street clothes as his teammates set about winning a national championship.
But the injury also ensured one thing: That his last game as a Wildcat was not the embarrassing loss at Robert Morris in, of all things, the National Invitation Tournament last spring. Hood, and Polson, had been to the absolute zenith of college basketball and a year later, were forced to come slinking home.
They watched as Calipari brought in a regal recruiting class – THE BEST OF ALL TIME, we were told by experts who track such things. Both seniors-to-be didn’t blink, at least publicly. On Media Day, Hood said, “I’m still the best shooter on the team, and I’ll tell them that.” Unfortunately, his best shooting performances as a Wildcat have remained on the practice floor. Minutes, once again, were scarce.
Hood’s final season got off to a false start. Just a few days after his coach lauded the contributions he’d been making in pre-season workouts, Hood banged his head on the floor during a practice session and suffered what must have been concussion-like symptoms. Nobody from UK ever said as much, but they withheld him from competition and ran “tests,” leading one to a logical conclusion.
Meanwhile, Polson, who had started the NIT game last year, found himself tattooed to the pine, much like his first season at Kentucky. He had the experience and the creds to be First Backup Point Guard Off The Bench, but young Dominique Hawkins, all quickness and wingspan, had edged in front of him on the depth chart. So Polson waited, playing mop-up minutes, on a couple of occasions finding himself seated on the floor in front of the official scorer, waiting to enter the game, when the final buzzer sounded.
Only when Hawkins began to falter midway through the SEC schedule did Calipari turn to Polson when the offense began to sputter. And when the Cats once again had trouble finding offense against Alabama’s sticky zone Tuesday night, Calipari re-inserted his senior point guard, who played a total of 19 minutes without a single turnover.
Like Hood, Polson is a fan favorite. A roar usually accompanies their entry into a game. Hood thinks it’s because they’re “Kentucky kids.” That may be part of it; the rest of it might be that they’re underdogs. Sure, Hood was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball; he committed when Gillispie was head coach and again to Calipari. But it never seemed that Hood fit into the Big Blue(print) of success the UK coach was drawing up.
Polson was invited to walk on by a coach who flatly stated on arrival that he doesn’t use walk-ons. Of course, Mark Krebs convinced Calipari that he might have been a bit hasty in that decision. And despite the fact that he competed with future NBA point guards in practice every day, Polson always thought his playing time would come.
“Just being a competitor, I always thought that maybe down the road I would get significant minutes and be able to compete with Division I opponents,” he said. “I don’t know if a lot of people thought that, even people close to me would think that, just because Kentucky’s on such a high level. I’m just grateful for everything I’ve been a part of and everything I’ve been able to accomplish. I don’t know. It’s just like a dream come true.”
Hood had higher expectations, arriving with the Mr. Basketball line on his resume’. And he’ll admit his career hasn’t exactly unfolded the way he had dreamed. But he says he doesn’t regret his decision to make his way from Madisonville to Lexington, not for a second.
“No regrets at all,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade this for anything. My five years here have been the best time of my life. I guess it’s hitting me right now that it’s coming to an end. Oh, well…”
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)