- Illinois State Redbirds - November 30, 2015 - Rupp Arena - 7:00 PM EST - ESPN2
The chants rained on Jarrod Polson from all corners of Rupp Arena.
Like a 24,000-member chorus, the fans yelled in unison, “Shoooooooooooot!!!”
They showered Polson with love, excitement and genuine appreciation for a home-grown kid. They wanted to see one of their own take the ball himself and launch it from any spot on the floor. This was his time and his chance to be a part of the program he so badly wanted to be a part of.
While the chants persisted last season, they lessened to a degree. Entering his third season at Kentucky, Polson said that’s a good thing.
“That means you’re not just in at the end of the games when it doesn’t really matter,” Polson said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “Hopefully those chants will stop because that will mean I’m playing at key points in the game.”
Polson views the chants as a sign of progress. The fewer he hears, the more he is improving.
It’s true, Polson still didn’t play a ton last year, registering the same amount of minutes (31) in his sophomore season as he did in his freshman year. But as Polson heads into his junior season with Kentucky, he’s noticed a change in his responsibility to the program.
No longer does he feel like he’s UK’s honorary mop-up man. After working his way up the ranks, moving from walk-on to scholarship player and now an upperclassman, Polson feels like he’s earned John Calipari and his coaching staff’s trust to put him in more key situations.
“I definitely think Cal has seen my improvement,” Polson said. “I’ve just been working hard and that’s paid off. It’s definitely nice to be one of the guys and have him expect stuff out of me.”
While every player is treated the same by Coach Cal, there is a natural hierarchy within any team when it comes to the responsibilities a player is entrusted with from his team. The best players play in Calipari’s system, and Polson has no problem admitting that the top recruits in the nation have an edge on him in terms of talent.
Polson, to a degree, is just happy to be a part of the program he grew up rooting for.
“When I get older I’ll look back and just be like, wow, that was crazy,” Polson said. “I’m really happy to be here and it really is a dream come true.”
But why become content with a dream? Why not turn it into one of his wildest fantasies?
Polson said that’s his plan for his final two years at Kentucky. He isn’t content with just coming off the bench for mop-up duty anymore. He’s hoping to increase his minutes this season and see action in important situations.
“I really think this is my best shot to play this year out of the three years I’ve been here,” Polson said. “Even Cal told me that. The depth is a little low this year so I think I can definitely contribute if I keep working hard like I’ve been doing.”
If Monday’s practice was any indication, Polson has moved up in the rotation. During a short five-on-five scrimmage to end practice, Polson was running the point for the White Team, opposite of projected starter Ryan Harrow.
That would leave one to believe that Polson is getting a serious look at backup point guard minutes. It should be pointed out that Archie Goodwin, who can play some point, was on the same team as Harrow, and Twany Beckham has the ability to play lead guard as well, but Polson certainly has a larger role with this team than he had with the past two.
Part of that’s experience and some it is the team’s depth. More than anything, though, Polson said he feels more comfortable playing in Calipari’s system.
“We had our first practice the other day and we were going through a lot of the same stuff we’ve done for two years,” Polson said. “Obviously that’s an advantage if you’re an older guy. I definitely feel a lot more comfortable and confident this year.”
Polson admitted that his confidence has wavered at times over his first two seasons. Going against the top players in the country on a game-by-game basis is one thing, but facing them every day in practice can be demoralizing and upsetting.
“I didn’t realize how good they would all be, especially my freshman year,” Polson said. “The whole game was a lot faster and stronger. That was definitely a big shock to me, but being in the system for two years now and going against those guys has really helped me a lot.”
Polson said he got down on himself at times and had to teach himself to stay resilient and look at the big picture.
“At some points, yeah, I’ll be honest,” Polson said when asked if he struggled with his confidence. “If they beat me off the dribble or something like that, just going against them in practice every day, I got down on myself. Obviously you’re not going to get them every time. At the same time, it gave me confidence too knowing that I could play against the best players in the nation.
“You can’t just base your confidence off one play here, one play there. Just the whole process is what I view it as now.”
Not only did Polson change his mindset, he’s changed his body. Although UK’s official rosters indicate he’s gained just five pounds since his freshman year, one doesn’t need to look at a roster sheet to see the obvious body transformation he’s undergone.
Where skinny arms and undefined flesh once hung from Polson’s shoulders, there is now sculpted biceps and rock-solid arms. Polson also mentioned that he walked on to UK’s campus at less than 170, considerably lighter than what his freshman weight was ultimately listed as.
Polson, now at 6-foot-2, 189 pounds, said it’s made a difference in how he can play the game.
That was evident in Monday’s practice when Polson finished among the trees on multiple occasions, including an impressive finish against Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel.
“Freshman year I was getting pushed around a lot,” Polson said. “Now I feel like I can actually do that a little bit, obviously not against some of the bigger guys, but I feel like my body is just as good as their bodies.”
Polson believes he belongs.
Practice report: Goodwin impresses during one-hour workout