How did John Calipari turn things around, when his team was losing to Belmont?
Simple – he went to Jarrod.
And when he did, the Wildcats responded immediately. Jarrod Polson’s energy and execution keyed a first-half run that dragged Kentucky back into the game, and the Cats went on to a 93-80 victory in this, the final contest before the Christmas break. It also happened to be the last game leading up to the annual blood-letting with Louisville.
Kentucky was down 25-14 when Calipari called a timeout and turned to the senior guard from Nicholasville. To that point, the man who started UK’s final game of last season had played in just seven of his team’s 11 games this year, for a total of 25 minutes. Against Belmont, he stayed in for 21, including the last nine of the first half, which he spent serving as the catalyst for the Cats.
As soon as UK took the floor out of the break, Polson quickly worked the ball to freshman guard Dominique Hawkins, who just as quickly found Julius Randle inside for a jam, by far his easiest bucket of the game so far. And the three of them made it look effortless.
Belmont answered with a three-pointer at the other end, but that’s when Polson drained his only shot of the day, answering with a triple of his own. The crowd, which had spent much of the first period acting the Grinch, went bananas. UK fans have never needed much prompting to cheer for Polson, since the day he arrived four years ago as a callow walk-on.
He wasn’t finished yet. Belmont still led by nine when Polson found Willie Cauley-Stein with an assist that led to a slam, and momentum clearing was shifting.
“They just play with so much passion,” Cauley-Stein said of Polson and Hawkins. “It’s fun to play with them, but it’s fun to watch, too.”
“I’ve been here for a while now, so I know what Cal is wanting, as far as pushing the ball,” Polson said.
He does, indeed, and he showed it all afternoon. With Polson on the floor, the Wildcats trimmed the deficit to one, before heading for the locker room down just two, to the team that earlier this season had beaten North Carolina.
“We were down 10 or 11 when I got in,” Polson said. “The crowd was dead and (the Bruins) were hitting shots. I just tried to push the ball and stuff like that. That’s what coach Cal wanted me to do. I feel like I did pretty good with that.”
His coach agreed.
“I was really proud of Jarrod (Polson), and you say, ‘What did Jarrod add to the game?’ ,” Calipari said in the media room. “All you Basketball Bennies, I love asking you questions because you look at each other and you really don't know. What did he add to the game? Energy. Energy. Nothing else. So now you understand what energy does for our team, and if you're sitting there and you're not one of the guys playing, you're saying ‘Man, I've got to play with energy.’ “
Calipari was forced to go back to Polson less than three minutes into the second half because Andrew Harrison picked up his third foul with 17:42 left, on an afternoon that saw Kentucky’s starting point guard struggle. He spent a total of 20 minutes on the floor and registered nary an assist, in a game that saw his team score seven shy of a hundred.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, they could turn to a player who, over the past three-plus seasons, had worked his way from the farthest reaches of the pine to significant minutes when his team needed them the most. And he understands why he’s not playing more, heaping praise on the one Harrison twin who’s struggling.
“Obviously, he’s a really talented player,” Polson said. “Anything I can do to help Andrew, I try to do. He’s still learning. I think he’s going to get it.”
For his part, Calipari is trying to stay positive about his freshman point guard. His message seems to be, This is no time to hit the panic button. And it helps when show ‘n tell time includes a veteran senior who knows what it’s like to be part of a team that struggled through a season like last year – AND a ballclub that won a national championship.
“I sat (Andrew) next to me,” Calipari said, “so I could talk him through what Jarrod was doing, because he can do everything Jarrod can do to another level, but he's not. ‘Do you see what he's doing?’ “
If Harrison didn’t, he had his eyes closed. Even we Basketball Bennies who don’t know anything couldn’t miss Polson’s contribution Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena. His stat line was modest – three points, one assist. But his effect was palpable. And it was a free trip to Basketball 101, if Andrew Harrison was paying attention. Both Polson and Calipari believe he is.
“You can ask anyone,” Polson said. “He’s really talented. He’s a really hard worker. People have been on him a little bit but he’s still learning, and obviously has a lot of talent. I think he’ll be really good by the end of the season.”
Calipari will see to that. At least, he’ll try.
“He has the talent, he has the ability, he has the mindset. I've just got to keep working with him,” the UK coach said. “At the end of the day, I want Andrew to be the best point guard in the country. I don't want there to be any question. Right now, most games, he's not the best point guard on the court.”
True enough. On this day, it was Jarrod Polson.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th year with the UK TV and Radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM. )