NEW YORK — Kentucky boasts one of the most star-studded rosters in college basketball every season, and this one will be no different, with most, if not all of the latest incarnation of the Wildcats starting lineup leaving for the NBA Draft — and likely the lottery — next spring.
But in Friday’s season opener against Maryland, it wasn’t super-freshmen Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress or Willie Cauley-Stein who stole the show.
Instead, it was junior Jarrod Polson, an unheralded former walk-on with no NBA prospects, who came up huge for the defending national champs, scoring 10 points, including two pressure-filled free throws with seven seconds left in No. 3 Kentucky’s 72-69 win at the Barclays Center.
Before Friday night, Polson, a 6-foot-2 guard out of Nicholasville, Ky. — a player who chose to walk on with Wildcats over a scholarship offer from Liberty University — had taken nine career shots. He had made just one basket. He’d played just 62 minutes over the course of two whole seasons.
In fact, Polson was so far from factoring into Maryland coach Mark Turgeon’s game plan coming into the game that Turgeon didn’t even know who he was when he checked in for Wildcats starter Ryan Harrow, who played a pitiful 10 minutes as he battled the flu.
“Absolutely zero went into thinking (about Polson) before the game,” Turgeon said. “And then he subbed in at the table, and I said, ‘Who’s that?’ . . . I’ve heard (Kentucky coach John Calipari) talk about his point-guard situation, and we should have known, but (Polson) was the whole key to the game.”
In addition to his two clutch free throws in front of the Maryland-leaning sellout crowd, Polson also came up with a put-back layup off of an offensive board to put Kentucky ahead for good, 64-63 lead with 5:09 left to play. Then, with 3:46 left, after the second of two missed free throws by Noel, Polson ripped the rebound from the hands of Maryland guard Pe’Shon Howard and made an acrobatic up-and-under layup to give the ‘Cats a 67-63 edge. Turgeon would call the latter bucket the “play of the game.”
“I’ll be honest, I mean, I was nervous,” Polson said, still appearing overwhelmed by nerves in what was his first, and most likely last, visit to the podium after the game. “But at the same time, it was good to get out there and play. . . . Obviously, I’m not one of the most talented guys out there on the court, so I knew I had to do different things, and that was a lot of defense and hustle.”
Certainly, Polson made for a feel-good story for the Wildcats when he saved their behinds on Friday, and when an overlooked player who works that hard in exchange for so few opportunities is able to break out, he deserves all the attention he gets.
But once Harrow is back to 100 percent, Polson will be relegated back to the end of the Wildcats bench, and as Kentucky prepares to face No. 8 Duke on Tuesday, it’ll have serious questions to answer about its shortcomings in what should have been a blowout against Maryland.
In addition to relinquishing that 15-point lead — doing so by allowing a spectacular 15-0 Terrapins run early in the second half — Kentucky allowed 28 offensive rebounds in the game, turned the ball over 12 times and shot just 24 percent from the field in the second half.
Had it not been for Maryland’s own poor shooting, hitting just 33.3 percent from the field and 15.8 percent from 3 while managing only 19 second-chance points on all those offensive boards, Kentucky would have lost the game.
“A team with two 7-footers and five guys that can jump above the square should not give up 30 offensive rebounds,” Calipari said. “It’s just how it is; we’ll figure it out. But I was happy that we were able to grind it out and play the way we knew how to play.”
To his credit, Calipari blames himself — or at least the circumstances — for Kentucky’s second-half struggles, and after years of churning out one-and-done NBA talent, he understands that, as his freshmen progress, he’ll be able to rely on them more and more.
“I didn’t have a press attack, could you tell?” Calipari asked after the game. “I haven’t put it in yet; we haven’t had time. (Turgeon) went to a 1-3-1 zone; we don’t have a zone offense in yet. I know you’re looking at me and saying, ‘You’re crazy,’ but did you notice that they didn’t know what the hell to do? . . . We’re behind, but we should be. We’ve got all new players.”
As for the new stars, Noel, who is listed at 6-foot-10 but is well over 7 feet tall with his impressive high top fade, had just four points on 2-of-6 shooting in his debut, but did grab nine rebounds and block three shots. Goodwin had 16 points, but did most of his damage at the free-throw line and in the first half. Poythress and Cauley-Stein had eight points each, and Cauley-Stein added four blocks, as well.
But all four freshmen looked over-eager at times on defense, over-pursuing shots and, as Calipari put it, “not helping the helper” and making good rotations, leading to many of Maryland’s offensive rebounds.
These are all things that need to change if Kentucky wants to find itself back in the Final Four in four short months, and as it stands right now, there’s no way of knowing if these Wildcats will find a way to gel like last year’s team.
“I like my team, (but) we’re not very good right now,” Calipari said. “My concern is we’re not playing hard enough, we’re stopping on possessions, we’re not physically tough enough and I don’t know if I can do anything about that, other than go in games and see if they’re going to fight.
“You’re either going to fight, or you’re going to get beat.”
And you’re not always going to have a Jarrod Polson to save you when all of the stars let up.