Mark Story: With knee injury behind him, can UK's Hood crack Calipari's rotation?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 25, 2012 

Jon Hood was interviewed during the University of Kentucky basketball media day held on the practice floor in the Joe Craft Center on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, October 11, 2012. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff

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Jon Hood holds a unique distinction in the current Kentucky Wildcats basketball strata: The fourth-year junior from Madisonville is the only player to have been part of the UK program for the entire coaching tenure of John Calipari.

It will be fascinating to see if Hood, the commonwealth's 2009 Mr. Basketball, who is again healthy after missing last season due to a torn ACL, can find a way to claw into Kentucky's regular playing rotation in 2012-13.

"I feel (my chances) are very good," Hood said at UK's media day. "My knee is 100 percent back to normal. I'm ready to go."

Personally, I put about as much stock in a player's performance in an intrasquad game as I do in emails from mysterious Hong Kong businessmen offering sweetheart financial deals.

With that disclaimer, Hood was active and productive in Kentucky's Blue-White scrimmage Wednesday night. He finished with 17 points on 8-for-15 shooting and had three rebounds and five assists. Afterward, Calipari praised Hood for, as the coaches say, playing within himself. "He knows what his game is now," Cal said.

So far in Hood's UK career, most of his games have involved watching. The 6-foot-7, 212-pounder has played in only 50 games (out of 76) in his two active UK seasons, logging 232 minutes of total playing time. He has scored 46 career points (an 0.9 a game average) and is a career 26.8 percent shooter.

That is modest production for a player who entered college ranked as the No. 40 prospect in the class of 2009 by recruiting service Rivals.com after averaging 29.4 points and 12.4 rebounds as a senior at Madisonville. (Interestingly, the No. 39-ranked player on that '09 Rivals list was Peyton Siva; the No. 41-rated player Christian Watford).

Many have already written off Hood as not a "Kentucky-level" player, but many had done so with Josh Harrellson. Once Jorts got an unexpected chance to play in 2010-11 because of the ineligibility of Enes Kanter, it turned out he could play at Kentucky level.

Hood thinks he can do the same thing.

"I feel like I can," he said. "Be consistent. Make the easy plays. That's all I'm working on. Whether that is hitting the open three, making the pass to the open man, going to rebound, playing defense, whatever, it doesn't matter. I just need to be consistent in what I do."

No one has gone through more to be part of the 2012-13 Kentucky basketball team than Hood. He missed what became UK's eighth NCAA championship season last year after tearing the ACL in his right knee.

After months of rehabilitation, Hood says, he gained trust in the surgically repaired knee this past summer by putting stress on it.

"I pounded on the knee for about a week straight just to see if something would happen," Hood said. "Because that is what guys had told me I needed to do. Robbie Hummel had told me I needed to do that; it is one of the big mental things (to be overcome). So I did it, and everything was fine. And I haven't looked back since."

The fraternity of college hoops players who have had torn ACLs is a tight one. Hummel, the ex-Purdue star who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee twice within months in 2010, contacted Hood after word of the UK player's injury first got out.

In turn, Hood tried to contact Louisville's Mike Marra in recent weeks after the U of L guard was sidelined for this season in September when he tore the ACL in his left knee for the second time.

"Robbie became the grizzled veteran of the ACL world," Hood said of Hummel. "I would have said that's me now, but I think that has turned into Mike Marra. ... I was sad to see him go down."

Conventional wisdom has Hood as Kentucky's eighth man this season, behind sophomores Kyle Wiltjer and transfer Ryan Harrow, freshmen Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, and senior transfer Julius Mays.

Calipari's recent history at UK suggests that — if one aspires to significant playing time — it is best not to fall below the sixth-man role.

Last season, Calipari's top six players all played at least 26.1 minutes; the seventh man, Wiltjer, logged 11.1 minutes a game.

In 2010-11, UK's top six all played at least 28.4 minutes; the seventh man, Eloy Vargas, got 7.7 minutes a game.

If circumstances don't intervene for Hood in the way they did for Harrellson, the question becomes can he play well enough in practice to earn Calipari's trust?

"There's nobody hungrier than me," Hood says. "I'm just ready to play."

It's been a long time, after all, since Jon Hood has gotten to do much of that.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230Email: mstory@herald-leader.comTwitter: @markcstoryBlog: markstory.bloginky.com

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