Commentary

You'll never guess who saved UK

Polson, a former walk-on, upstaged star teammates in season-opening squeaker

Updated: November 10, 2012, 1:06 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- On the Big Apple's brand-new stage, an understudy stole the show Friday night.

The buzz leading up to the Barclays Center Classic, the first college hoops event at the billion-dollar palace just opened in downtown Brooklyn, was about No. 3 Kentucky, the defending national champion. More specifically, it was about coach John Calipari's latest haul of high school All-Americans and talented transfers, who would be making their debuts in white and blue.

Instead, unheralded junior Jarrod Polson was the Wildcats' MVP in a 72-69 season-opening victory over Maryland.

[+] EnlargeJarrod Polson and Kyle Wiltjer
Jason Szenes/Getty ImagesJarrod Polson, left, and Kyle Wiltjer scored a combined 29 points on 10-for-14 shooting.

"He was the whole key to the game," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said.

It certainly wasn't supposed to be this way. The headlines were supposed to feature 6-foot-10 forward Nerlens Noel, the top-ranked high school player in the country, one of three freshmen Calipari put in his starting lineup.

Noel showed flashes of stardom, but finished with just four points to go with nine rebounds and three blocks.

Fellow freshman Archie Goodwin was better, scoring 16 points and displaying a knack for getting to the free throw line. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, one of the few holdovers from last season, scored a team-high 19, burying four of his six 3-point attempts.

But the hero was a 6-foot-2 former walk-on from Nicholasville, Ky., who played just 31 minutes all of last season and scored seven points combined in his first two seasons with the Wildcats.

"He was ready for his opportunity," Calipari said. "And as a coach, there's nothing that makes me happier."

Coming on in relief of sophomore guard Ryan Harrow, who struggled early and was also battling the flu, Polson gave Kentucky 22 steady minutes at the point.

How steady? Well, how about this stat line: 10 points, three assists and zero turnovers against a tenacious Maryland half-court defense.

Throw in two clutch free throws with 7.7 seconds left, extending Kentucky's lead from one point to three, and you've basically got a dream come true.

"Ryan had been sick a little bit this week, so I knew I might get the opportunity," Polson said. "So just focusing in on practice, and just trying to run the offense as best I could ... that was just what I was trying to do."

Calipari had mixed feelings about his team's performance as a whole. He liked what he saw in the first half, when the Wildcats opened up a 49-36 lead, shooting 58.1 percent from the field.

The second half, however, was a different story. The Terrapins ratcheted up the D and pounded the glass, finishing with a whopping 28 offensive rebounds. A 15-0 Maryland run tied the game at 53, and the Terps even took a slim lead before Kentucky pulled back ahead for good.

"I like my team. [But] we're not very good right now," Calipari said. "Look, here's what we've done: We've played one really good half, and one half that we stunk. And two exhibition games. So that's about where we are right now.

"We're not ready to play 40 minutes of basketball," Calipari added. "We're just not ready."

Luckily for him, Polson was ready to give them an unexpected boost.

"I'm proud of Jarrod," Calipari said. "Jarrod's one of those guys that comes every day, plays within who he is, does the things he can do, doesn't try to do more. And he just performed. I mean, he was outstanding."

Polson admitted being nervous, playing the most he has in a game since his senior year at West Jessamine High School. But he has faced NBA first-round draft picks Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague in practice the past two seasons.

"I've been going up against some of the best players in the nation," Polson said. "Just working hard against them every day has gotten me where I am today."

Kentucky is 1-0, but clearly a work in progress. It's oozing with talent, but there will be more growing pains.

We'll be talking about Noel, Goodwin, Wiltjer and company all season long. But on the opening night of this college basketball season, Kentucky's best player was a former walk-on.

There might not be a bigger upset over the next five months.

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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