You have to wonder if, when Jarrod Polson checks into a game for Kentucky, the opposing players are secretly satisfied. Do they believe they’ve just taken the upper hand by driving the Wildcats’ starting point guard, Ryan Harrow, to the bench?
There was a time when that might have been the case, but not now. At least, not lately, anyway.
Polson, along with Willie Cauley-Stein – more specifically, their energy – were the difference Saturday afternoon as Kentucky fought off Auburn, 72-62 before a subdued crowd in Rupp Arena. Subdued, because the Tigers showed up with a different game plan in mind than the one they employed three weeks ago on the plains. And it kept the audience out of the game for long stretches.
Auburn did three things, and they all worked in concert, helping keep the Tigers in the game until late in the second half. They:
Played physical basketball. Auburn took it to the Wildcats early, trailing just 37-31 at intermission. Nerlens Noel managed 10 points on the night but got off only two field goal attempts (he scored a career-high eight points at the free throw line). The Tigers were whistled for 29 fouls (to UK’s 21) and had one player, Jordon Granger, ejected after throwing a punch. But they were not intimidated. Their game plan? “Be competitive,” said head coach Tony Barbee. Asked to elaborate, he simply repeated, “Be competitive.”
Kept Noel from being the defensive factor in the paint that he normally is. Noel had just one block (23 straight games to open his collegiate career with at least one block) and that came in the final two minutes of the game; and –
“They took a lot of threes,” said John Calipari, “and the other thing they were doing was they were spacing the court and getting him out on the court at times. There will be people watching this game and prepare for us off this game.”
So with Noel unable to be the dominant defender that he normally is, and Archie Goodwin shackled to the bench with foul trouble much of the afternoon, the Cats need a spark. Polson and Cauley-Stein were ready to oblige, having discussed it on the bench.
“Jarrod and I will be sitting here talking to each other like, ‘When we get in this game, we have to be the hype man, we have to get in there and give everybody energy and pump people up,’ ” Cauley-Stein said.
Polson enjoys the role which, believe it or not, was new to him as he entered the college game. Even though he was a play-making point guard at West Jessamine County High School, Polson said, bringing energy to the game is a skill he’s only recently developed.
“I’m consciously thinking of it,” he said. “In high school, I wasn’t the most energetic guy. I just tried to change my mind-set, once I got to college. It’s working out. It’s getting me more minutes. It’s working for me.” In fact, against Auburn, Polson drilled his first career three-pointer in SEC play, finishing with three points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal in 20 minutes.
Cauley-Stein, for one, is not surprised.
“I played with Jarrod in the summer. He’s good,” he said. “It’s crazy; you’ll find one of them walk-on dudes that will show up and you don’t know anything about them and they play extremely hard. You get glimpses of, If this dude went anywhere else, he’d be a star player, and he chose here.”
Cauley-Stein appreciates the point guards who have preceded Harrow, figuring Polson learned from all of them. “Going behind John Wall, he’s got this mental toughness. All the people he’s gone through (including Eric Bledsoe and Marquis Teague), there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be playing like he is,” Cauley-Stein said. “He’s tough and he’s a good asset to our team.”
Calipari loved what he got from both his energy guys, and hopes it’s contagious. “If you’re sitting there watching the game and you see what they do and what it does, wouldn’t it inspire you to do something?” he asked, rhetorically. “Or do you say, Well, that’s fine but I’m not going to do that. “
He got it from some of his young Wildcats, but not all. And not enough to suit him.
“It was nothing but energy,” is how he described their contribution. “That’s all it is. Just come out and ball. Quit worrying about how you’re playing for yourself, worry about our team and just bring energy.”
They all need to bring it Tuesday in Gainesville, because the Gators likely will bring a major dose of their own, stoked by an overflow crowd.
“That’s not our focus right now; our focus is getting better,” said Noel, channeling his coach, “and making sure we stay focused on what we need to do.”
If they do that – energetically – they could return from Florida with a share of first place in the SEC.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th 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.)