|The most unlikely hero for Kentucky Friday night was a junior guard named Jarrod Polson. (Getty Images)|
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- After he'd grabbed big offensive rebounds and buried clutch free throws and led college basketball's reigning national champions in assists in a season-opening victory despite the fact that three hours earlier the opposing coach didn't even know his name, Jarrod Polson found himself outside the interview room here at the Barclays Center waiting to speak to the media.
And he was nervous.
Boy, was he nervous about walking into that room.
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"Go ahead," said Kentucky teammate Kyle Wiltjer, at which point Polson froze just outside the door and proposed a different plan to his good friend who had also helped the third-ranked Wildcats to a 72-69 win over Maryland that wasn't decided until the final buzzer.
"No you go ahead," Polson replied. "I don't know what to do."
"Just go," Wiltjer said.
"No, you go first, " Polson whispered. "I'm not used to this."
Kentucky will win lots of games this season because of future lottery picks but on this night the key was a former walk-on who played a total of 31 minutes all of last season, which is why Maryland coach Mark Turgeon turned to his staff when Polson checked in with 16:15 left in the first half and asked, "Who's that?"
That was Jarrod Brannon Polson -- son of George and Chrisi Polson. He was born in Lexington. He grew up a UK fan. He ultimately chose to attend Kentucky rather than accept a basketball scholarship from ... Liberty.
Translation: Jarrod Polson is supposed to be a Big South player.
But he instead followed his Big Blue heart out of high school, enrolled at UK with no promises and spent the past two years buried on the bench behind Brandon Knight, DeAndre Liggins, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Marquis Teague, all of whom proved to be NBA guards. Polson figured to be buried on this Kentucky bench, too; that's the byproduct of John Calipari recruiting the way he recruits and consistently enrolling guards better than the ones Liberty typically pursues -- point being that Polson could stay at Kentucky for the next 10 years, and there would always be guards on the roster with more natural talent than he could ever hope to possess.
But that doesn't mean they'd always play well.
Or feel well.
So Polson kept working in practice, kept hustling in scrimmages, kept waiting and waiting and waiting for an opportunity, and when UK's new starting point guard (Ryan Harrow) developed flu-like symptoms this week -- and looked in the opening minutes of this game like a new starting point guard with flu-like symptoms -- that opportunity presented itself. So Polson checked in before the first media timeout, brought energy and finished with 10 points, three assists, two rebounds and one steal in 22 minutes while making four of the five shots he attempted. His two free throws with 7.7 seconds remaining created the three-point advantage that led to Maryland having to attempt a 3-pointer at the buzzer that was late leaving the hand of Pe'Shon Howard and would not have counted even if it had swished and sent the soldout crowd -- that included American icon and local product Jay-Z -- into a frenzy.
"[Polson] playing like that got me excited," Wiltjer said. "It got us all excited."
Which is not to suggest there aren't reasons for concern at Kentucky.
Again, Harrow looked awful in his UK debut, and it remains to be seen whether that's because he was sick or at least partly because the North Carolina State transfer simply isn't equipped to follow the footsteps of Calipari's string of NBA guards that dates back to Derrick Rose at Memphis. And Nerlens Noel might develop into the top pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, but he's so clearly not that yet, and he was overshadowed in this game by Alex Len's 23-point, 12-rebound performance that could help propel the Maryland big into next June's lottery.
"And we gave up 30 offensive rebounds," Calipari said, and it doesn't really matter that the number was actually 28. The point remains the same -- that the Wildcats won't be able to get hammered on the boards like that against good competition and win often, and if they aren't better against Duke in Atlanta then they'll take their first loss Tuesday.
But all those issues are issues for another day. This night was about Jarrod Polson -- the former walk-on who led the future lottery picks to a victory they almost certainly would not have been able to record without him.
"I'll be honest, I was nervous," Polson said. "But it was definitely a lot of fun for me."