John Clay: Calipari wants Cats to follow Polson's lead

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 8, 2014 

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Pay no attention to that Kentucky-Mississippi State box score, the one that says Jarrod Polson made just one of six shots, missed all of his three-point tries, missed his only free-throw attempt and had just one assist.

On an afternoon like this, when 18th-ranked Kentucky needed everything it could muster to outlast Mississippi State 69-59 at Humphrey Coliseum, some numbers are meaningless when the eyes don't lie.

The eyes said Kentucky doesn't win this game without Jarrod Polson.

"He knows how to play basketball," Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said Saturday.

On this day, Kentucky needed Polson to play a lot of basketball. With starting point guard Andrew Harrison battling foul trouble for most of the game, the senior Polson played 30 minutes — a minute shy of his career high in the NIT loss at Robert Morris last year — as the Cats improved to 18-5 overall and 8-2 in the SEC.

And if it wasn't the flashiest 30 minutes of basketball, it was certainly the steadiest.

Oh, the former West Jessamine star made a couple of mistakes. You don't play 30 minutes without a mistake or two.

"He had a couple of plays where he was — 'Why would you foul that guy on the layup? Give him the layup. Why give him the extra point?'' said John Calipari, the UK coach. "We're running an offense and the top of the key, he just throws it to — that's not the play. You can't do that. You've got to have mental discipline like everybody else, drive it to the wing and then throw it. So he broke down some.

"But I'll tell you what he does, he tries. So how can you get mad?"

You don't get mad. You give thanks.

You give thanks that you have a heady senior who can bail you out of a tough spot, especially when at the start of the season it appeared Polson's spot was going to be one nailed securely to the bench.

Dominique Hawkins was getting the playing time then. Hawkins was new and athletic and Calipari wanted to see what the former Madison Central star could do. Hawkins began the year well enough, but as things progressed you could see his confidence start to slip a little, and in slipped Polson.

"Nah," said Hawkins on Friday when asked if he had a problem with his diminished role. "Jarrod's playing well. He knows what he's doing."

Saturday, Kentucky needed somebody who knew what he was doing. Polson was a stabilizing influence on a team in dire need of a steadying hand.

With Andrew Harrison on the bench and his young teammates questionable in the areas of effort and decision-making, Polson ran the offense, hustled on defense and performed like, well, a veteran.

"Sometimes when you got all that talent out there, you need a guy like that who's just a mainstay to kind of accept who he is as a basketball player," Ray said. "He knows that, 'Hey, I'm open right here, but I've got Julius Randle open below me. I'm going to throw the ball to Julius Randle.'"

Throw the ball to Julius Randle without turning it over. Here's the Polson number from the box score you need to know: zero turnovers,

And, oh yeah, he tied for the team lead in steals with two.

"(With Jared), it isn't like OK, I missed, so I'll jog back and give them a layup," Calipari said. "We did that today. 'I missed a free throw, so I'm going to jog back and let them get a layup because my emotion is tied in to me and how I'm playing, not my team.' That's what I'm trying to break through."

Polson broke through that a long time ago. There was a second-half play Saturday where the senior blew a chance at a transition basket when he missed a point-blank shot.

And what did he do? Polson ripped back down the floor in time to disrupt a State fast break and knock the ball out of bounds.

"Give you everything in his body, that's how he plays," Calipari said. "We've got to get a bunch of guys playing that way."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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