The last time the college basketball world caught a glimpse of Kentucky, six NBA-bound super-talents were front and center.
Since then, an awful lot has changed.
In the program’s first meaningful game since seizing title No. 8 on the backs of the top two picks in June’s NBA draft, an unlikely hero led the charge. That’s right, the same Kentucky that owns more players in the league, more first round picks since John Calipari took over the reins and more far-flung swagger than any other school in college hoops turned to a former walk-on on Friday to save the day.
Last season, it was Anthony Davis and Michael-Kidd Gilchrist. On Friday, Jarrod Polson stole the show with a little bit of help from the iceman Kyle Wiltjer. Polson, who once chose Kentucky [without a scholarship offer] over Liberty, the only Division-1 school pursuing him with any zest, is the hero in Lexington at least for a day.
Filling in for starting point guard Ryan Harrow, who left the game midway through the first half after battling flu-like symptoms in the days leading up to the game, Polson delivered big-time. The seldom-known junior guard chipped in ten points, six in the final five minutes, as the Wildcats held off a fierce Maryland comeback at the inaugural Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn.
Kentucky snuck out a 72-69 win thanks to Polson’s play down the stretch, though there were plenty of subsidiary storylines—both good and bad—in addition to the unlikely hero.
Kyle Wiltjer was money. Don’t let the freshmen hype fool you into thinking someone other than Kyle Wiltjer is Kentucky’s most important player. Though just a sophomore—and one who had never, before Friday, started a game in college—Wiltjer will assume a leadership role on this year’s team as the most experienced of three primary scorers (freshmen Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin are the other two). Wiltjer’s four treys and 19 points in all allowed Kentucky to jump out to a sizable lead early, but it was his clutch two free throws with less than 30 seconds to play that iced the game for the Cats.
Kentucky’s bench will play big role this season. This team isn’t stocked with more college-ready talent than Kentucky teams of old per se, but expect Coach Cal to dig deeper into his bench this season than in years past. With major question marks at point and inexperience at the 2 and 3, the Cats will turn to guys like Polson, Julius Mays and Willie Cauley-Stein for extended minutes. This is John Calipari’s weakest—albeit still super-talented—starting-5 in Lexington to date. Unless the soft-spoken Ryan Harrow is injected with more conviction, aggressiveness and toughness, the Cats will have to rely on their backup guards a lot this season. If you think the Jarrod Polson story was a one-hit wonder and that similar opportunities won’t become available again this season, think again.
Point guard play could doom Big Blue long-term. Ryan Harrow gets a pass tonight because he was battling the flu, though his ten minutes of action tonight were subpar and his one-year stint at N.C. State even less so. This was Harrow’s first official game at Kentucky, after all, and he was playing under the weather at that. He’ll improve (and needs to significantly). But don’t expect quantum leaps over the full season like the ones Marquis Teague made last year. Harrow is John Calipari’s worst—or “least good” for you sensitive folks put off by the negative word—point guard at Kentucky. As great of a story as Polson was tonight, if the Cats have to rely on him throughout the season like they did tonight, forget any chances of a repeat.
Maryland abused Kentucky on the boards. The second half rebounding battle resembled a high school practice drill between the varsity and J.V. Kentucky got worked hard. Whether the Wildcats are just a weak rebounding team (doubt it given their size and length), the Terps are a rebounding juggernaut (also unlikely) or tonight’s rebounding disparity was just a fluke (my vote), Calipari’s group needs to improve seismically on the glass.
Up next for Kentucky is a date with Duke in Atlanta on Nov. 13. If Noel thought the fledgling Alex Len was a piece of work, he better get his act together in time for Tuesday night. Unlike Len, this isn’t Mason Plumlee’s first big rodeo.