John! John Hood! Great to see you again…
You’ve popped into games lately, here and there, but as soon as I get used to seeing you run up and down the floor, poof – gone, back to the bench, where you’ve spent way too much time this season.
I know it’s not your fault. You took that spill in practice, just before the season began, and you’ve been trying to shake off the effects of a blow to the head. Rotten luck, with all the work you’ve put in on your damaged knees. You were finally ready to make things happen.
And this is a team that could use your senior leadership. It got a good dose Saturday afternoon in Starkville. Mississippi State barely showed up for the first four minutes of this one but between the first and second TV timeouts, the Bulldogs did a complete reversal and grabbed all the momentum, not to mention the lead. Your coach, obviously, didn’t like what he saw.
“When I went with John Hood and Jerrod (Polson), the energy picked up. That should be starters,” John Calipari told TV analyst Joe Dean, Jr., after the 69-59 win by you and the Wildcats. Trouble was, it wasn’t coming from the starters, so you got the call – you and Jerrod, another senior. And you responded.
Oh, you didn’t shovel in a ton of points, the way you used to in high school. Jerrod did, too, back in the day. I’m sure you’re aware West Jessamine High School just retired his jersey. Has North Hopkins High in Madisonville retired yours yet? Probably should. After all, you WERE Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky in 2009, not to mention the Gatorade Kentucky Player of the Year.
What you did today was exactly what Calipari was looking for – provide energy. You ran the floor, you played transition defense (something your teammates didn’t care to do in the early going), you talked (at times, it looked like you were barking) on defense and you went after loose balls. Plus, you knocked down a three.
At a time when the Bulldogs might have been able to turn a small lead into a big one, you came through, John. And you made a difference in the box score, even though you finished with a modest three points and two rebounds. Your plus/minus ratio, the stat that measures how well your team plays when you’re on the floor, was +13. That’s important.
Calipari played more zone defense today, although he had to for a couple of reasons. Kentucky’s perimeter defense, as studio analyst Kyle Macy pointed out both before the game and at halftime, periodically resembles a sieve. It certainly did today, with Bulldogs running through it both in transition and the halfcourt. None of MSU’s first 26 points came from outside the paint or the free throw line.
The zone helped slow the poor-shooting home team, which has had trouble scoring from the outside all season. And it helped make you and Polson more effective on defense. As seniors, you know how vital it is to talk out there, especially within the confines of a zone.
And because you were able to turn back the State offense time and again, Calipari felt more comfortable leaving both of you out there, knowing you weren’t going to be constantly burned by quicker, faster MSU guards.
I wish we could see more of you, John, not just because you’re a fan favorite thanks to your hard work and your Kentucky ties. You deserve more clock. And I know you understand that your coach is trying to prepare a team for a late-season run, deep into the NCAA tournament.
But some of us who are old enough to remember a time when a guy like you, a fifth-year player, was not an anomaly, understand the value of a grizzled veteran when it comes to fielding a young team. The more quality minutes you play, the more the younger guys are going to listen to someone who’s been through the wars.
Sure, Julius Randle had his 16 points and seven rebounds, James Young his 11 points and Dakari Johnson nine , with eight rebounds. But when you and Polson were in there, the twins were on the bench – and at times, so was Young.
Andrew Harrison played just 15 minutes and fouled out before the final TV timeout, with your Wildcats up just 59-50. Brother Aaron played 36 minutes, but finished 4-of-15, though he did have six assists and just two turnovers.
Because of Andrew’s problems, your fellow senior, Polson, logged 30 minutes, and while he missed five of six shots, he did take care of the ball (zero turnovers) and made two steals. The two of you were a steadying influence, something needed in a building jam-packed with hostile Bulldog fans.
Mississippi State had won three of four SEC games at home, with the only loss coming to league-leading Florida. And now Kentucky has left Starkville with a victory.
Maybe the Wildcats win it even if you don’t play today, John. But it would have been a lot tougher. You did your job. You helped the young guys. You contributed.
Good to see.
(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.)