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Polson, Hood take different paths to memorable UK careers

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Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood will be honored at UK's Senior Night on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood will be honored at UK's Senior Night on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood grew up as so many youngsters in the Bluegrass do, dreaming of one day wearing a Kentucky uniform.

Nonetheless, their decisions to ultimately become Wildcats were very different.

Leading West Jessamine High School to the Sweet Sixteen, Polson played his way into a walk-on offer from John Calipari. Following in his father's footsteps as a lifelong UK fan, Polson didn't hesitate for a moment in bypassing a scholarship to play at Liberty.

"I knew that if I ever got the opportunity to play for Kentucky that I would always take it," Polson said.

Hood, on the other hand, was a blue-chip prospect from Madisonville, Ky., who drew interest from the likes of Florida, Duke and Tennessee. Kentucky was always on his list, but Hood was no lock to choose his home-state school.

"Once I started getting recruited it just became another school," Hood said. "And then Kentucky turned out to be the best fit for me, my family and where I should go. Now I'm here."

Not for much longer though.

On Tuesday, Polson and Hood will celebrate Senior Night before No. 25/24 UK (21-8, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) hosts Alabama (12-17, 6-10 SEC) in its home finale. Coach Cal confirmed on Monday the two fan favorites will start.

For Hood, it will be his first start in a UK uniform. Holding court for his pre-Senior Night press conference, Hood was asked whether he questions his decision to stick it out at Kentucky rather than transferring elsewhere to play a featured role. Hood was quick to say he has "no regrets at all."

"I wouldn't trade this for anything," Hood said. "My experience and my five years here have been the best time in my life. I don't know, I guess it's kind of hitting me right now that it's coming to an end."

Both Hood and Polson are the last men standing from their respective incoming classes. Most of their freshman classmates have all gone on to the NBA, which makes the combined nine years the two have spent Lexington seem like an eternity to those who follow the program.

Polson can relate in some ways, but another part of him feels like the summer of 2010 really wasn't that long ago.

"It does in a way (feel like he's been at UK for a long time)," Polson said. "At the same time it feels like it's flown by. I can remember freshman year, getting here, and it seems like forever ago that that was the case."

Hood is even further removed from his own arrival in Lexington. In the summer before what would have been his junior year, the 6-foot-7 guard suffered a torn ACL and missed the entire 2011-12 season. It cost him a chance to play on a national-championship team, but the injury has also become a blessing in disguise.

"It made me look at things in a different way, look at the relationships I had with people, helped me develop my sense for basketball, love for basketball in a different way and a new light," Hood said. "It just made me respect the game a lot more."

The lessons Hood learned through his injury and recovery from reconstructive surgery color his perspective on his UK career as it approaches its conclusion. The national title remains his favorite team memory, but his favorite individual moments don't have anything to do with the times he's gotten opportunities for extended playing time.

What Hood will remember are the bonds he has built.  

"That's what'll mean the most to me after this," Hood said. "Just the relationships I've had with people and the connections."

Hood has played with an unprecedented parade of talent during his UK career. Beginning with classmates John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, Hood has called 17 NBA Draft picks and 13 first rounders teammates with players from this current team likely to join that group.

"It definitely means the world to me being able to call those guys up, chit-chat, talk, whatever," Hood said. "Need something basketball wise or just talk to them how they're playing, how they're doing even outside of basketball. Guys that I've met around here -- media guys, different people around the program -- it's good to connect with people and I don't think that the fans understand that part of it."

The other thing Hood and Polson both said fans don't understand about playing at UK is the work involved.

"I guess people a lot of times see the glamour of it and how everyone's a pop star and all that stuff," Polson said. "And that's really cool and being able to be a role model for kids is really cool. But a lot of hard work goes into it, and we like that. We call it the grind."

For Polson, that grind has resulted in a regular role each of the last two seasons. He averaged 13.8 minutes per game as a junior -- with his breakout game coming in a 10-point performance in a season-opening win over Maryland -- and 9.4 minutes per game this season.

Confident in his ability, Polson always believed playing time to be a possibility, though he concedes others thought otherwise.

"I mean, me personally, just being a competitor, I always thought that maybe down the road I would get significant minutes and be able to compete with Division I opponents," Polson said. "I don't know if a lot of people thought that -- even people close to me would ever think that -- just because Kentucky is on such a high level."

What the future holds for Polson and Hood is unclear. The pair expressed interest in going overseas to play professionally before the season, but the fact that they already have their degrees means they have options.

Hood hasn't ruled out coaching as a possibility. If he chooses that route, he already has a solid foundation having observed Coach Cal for so long.

"Well I know the Dribble-Drive offense in and out, so that's one thing," Hood said. "I know how to motivate players, how to make it a players' program and he's a good coach. He knows what he's doing. I would take everything from Cal."

But first, Polson and Hood want to finish their careers the right way. They believe it's up to them and their teammates to make that happen.

"No matter how he's coaching, we have to respond to that in a good way," Polson said. "We've had a lot of talks with him personally and us as a team, so I think we're in a good spot. No matter what happens, we know that, at the end of the day, we have to go out and perform. It's not anyone else; it's us as players have to perform."

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