LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — John Calipari's career, if you look at it in its entirety, has been spent developing basketball players and teams. It was only in his last few years at Memphis that he created this new brand, of a coach who could put players into the express lane to the NBA.
Before that, he was a lot more likely to build an Edgar Padilla over four years than a Derrick Rose in one. His first Final Four team at UMass was veteran and hard-nosed. At Memphis, he went to the title game behind Rose, yes, but also had Chris Douglas Roberts, a junior out of Detroit, Antonio Anderson, a junior from Massachusetts, and Joey Dorsey, a junior from Georgia.
His first Final Four team at Kentucky wouldn't have gotten to a Final Four without his development of DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson.
Now consider this. If Harrellson were on Calipari's current Kentucky roster, he'd be lucky to get mop-up time.
Think about that, a guy good enough to outplay Jared Sullinger on UK's way to the Final Four likely wouldn't ever see the court.
Why do I bring this up?
Because I wonder if, after his 30-minute performance at Mississippi State Saturday, Jarrod Polson isn't in that same mold.
I'm not going to sit here and argue that Polson is as talented as the other point guards on this team. No way. Not Andrew Harrison. Not Dominique Hawkins. You'd call me crazy, and you'd be right. Nor is he even, comparably speaking, as talented as Harrellson, who wound up an NBA Draft pick.
But here's what Polson does bring — three years in Calipari's system. Two trips to the Final Four. An NCAA championship ring. And a lifetime spent in the state of Kentucky, which has brought him a profound knowledge of what the program means to people here, and a profound passion to see it rise to its potential. He has also gone up against Brandon Knight in practice, and Marquis Teague. You could argue, and I have, that he should've been handed the keys to the team last season. Ryan Harrow was a failed experiment. Polson, sink or swim, would've been a preferable option.
Regardless, stay with me, now.
This UK team, loaded as it is with high school All-Americans, isn't in need of more talent.
But it may well be in need of the things that Polson brings. For that matter, a dose of Jon Hood didn't seem to hurt the Wildcats at Mississippi State. Everything I listed about Polson, you can pretty much credit to Hood, too.
In every interview Calipari does these days — and there are fewer and fewer of them — he makes the point that he has the youngest team in Kentucky's history, and he's right. What he doesn't say is that he has experience on his roster; he's just choosing not to play it.
These guys aren't the final answer to Kentucky's championship question. I'm not making that point. But the more they play, the better it seems to be for the Wildcats, who have never made a Final Four without a Kentucky native either in the starting lineup or among the top six scorers.
I've written it several times, I thought we'd see a steady diet of Polson this season. I was surprised when Hawkins was the guy who came off the bench behind Harrison early on. He's a great player, but he doesn't bring the kind of experience and savvy that Polson has.
This team doesn't need a Derrick Rose-type guy driving the lane. It needs somebody who will come down and run the offense, who brings great energy, who will play defense. Polson isn't mistake-free, but he hasn't had a chance to build up enough playing time to season himself.
At the team's media day this season, I asked Polson about all that he's seen. As a guy who grew up around the program, at least watching like everyone else in Central Kentucky, I figured his perspective would be worthwhile.
"I get up every day grateful to have been a part of all this," Polson said. "I mean, I think this is as exciting a time to be around this program as any time there's ever been. To be a part of that, to do whatever I can, I take that seriously."
Calipari said that the only time he was able to get his team to play right in Mississippi was when Polson and Hood were in the game. Assistant coach Kenny Payne had more praise for Hood in a news conference Tuesday in advance of Wednesday's game at Auburn.
"I would say John Hood has been one of our most prominent leaders, best leaders," Payne said. "He's been one of our most energetic guys in practice, totally positive, comes in every day and works his tail off and when he got his opportunity, took advantage of it and played very well. I thought it would be hard for us to win that game at Mississippi State without him."
"It's hard," Payne said, when asked about being a leader when you don't see a lot of minutes. "When you're being vocal to young players who see you not play, that's hard. But he's undeterred, always positive."
As this UK team looks to "get it" down the stretch of this season, maybe one of the answers is to play this pair of seniors who undoubtedly do get it. It'll take a commitment from Calipari. It's hard to turn away from a McDonald's All-American to go to players who have far less pedigree. But if Calipari will think back, he's won with those kinds of guys before.
Maybe from what we saw in Starkville, Miss., he's already come to that conclusion. We'll find out over the coming games.
Polson and Hood are not going to take over the team. Nobody expects that. But with luck, maybe some of their teamwork and enthusiasm might.