Jarrod Polson is in his senior season as a member of the Kentucky Wildcats. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. This week, Jarrod Polson writes about the first road trip of the season, enjoying his final year at Kentucky and what his next step could be.
I'm happy to be doing this and get a chance to talk about my last year here at Kentucky. It's been a fun ride so far and I'm really happy to see what this season is going to turn out like. I hope we go out with a bang.
Team-wise, I think we're doing pretty good so far. I think we've been improving every day, and that's the biggest goal here is just not to worry about who we're playing but improving ourselves every day. With the big first test against Michigan State, I think we showed a lot of perseverance. We could have lost by 30 that game with the start we had, but I think that definitely proved how competitive our guys are and how much they want to win no matter what.
Even though we lost that game, I think that may have helped us a lot, kind of like the Indiana game did to us in my sophomore year. It was kind of just a wake-up call to realize that everyone is going to give us their best game every night. We always have to be ready.
I wouldn't say our new guys were nervous, but when Michigan State went on that big 10-0 run at the beginning, you could kind of see them like, oh wow, this is big time and something they had never been a part of before. I think that's definitely going to help them because that's how the tournament games are going to be in the SEC and in the NCAA Tournament. I think just having that in the back of their minds and finally getting through that game and actually coming back at the end and having a chance to win shows them that they're going to have to play hard. Knowing now that we have the fight and will to do it, I think it will prove to be an important game for us.
The Michigan State game was also our first time on the road this year. I've been through it a lot, but it was the freshmen's first time flying on the plane with us and seeing how we do things. We don't really get to do too many extracurricular activities when we're on the road; we pretty much just stay in the hotel and get focused for the game. At the same time, it puts everyone together. I think it's definitely a good bonding experience going on the plane rides together and just being in different cities together and being with each other for a 48-hour period non-stop. I really enjoy the road a lot. I think a lot of the players do just because it kind of lets us get away and we get to play.
For me, the trip to Chicago was cool because it was my first time in the United Center. Seeing Michael Jordan's retired jersey and stuff in the rafters, I think everyone was just kind of like, wow. I know some of them played in the McDonald's All-American Game so they had been in there before, but for me, I didn't even realize it until we went in there. I was just kind of like, oh yeah, this is where Michael Jordan played. This is where the Chicago Bulls made their legacy.
It's kind of crazy how many games we have played already. I feel like we usually don't play half the games that we've already played in November. But we're enjoying it. We enjoy playing. If we could play every day I think we would choose that over practicing. Honestly, sometimes it feels like a game is less tiring than a practice. It's fun for us to get started right off the bat and keep playing game after game after game, plus I think it's good for the freshmen because they're just getting g a ton of experience. I think it's a win-win situation for us.
Off the court, I think we're a really close team. Curfew has kind of helped with that. We're all in by 11 or midnight every night. A lot of us are still awake at that point so we're bringing out the pool table and stuff like that, just hanging out with one another. Actually me, Jon and Dominique just brought out the ping pong table the night after our game. I think I'm the best, but I've only played Jon and Dominique so far and it's really the first time we've played it this year. I'm not much of a pool shark, but Hoody is pretty good at pool. Alex is alright. Actually, not really.
In all seriousness, even though we would prefer not to have curfew, it's actually making us closer. We have to hang out. It's not like we don't want to hang out anyways because we love each other off the court, but we're getting closer because of it and we're having fun.
If we get to go home for Thanksgiving, I'll probably take a couple of the guys home with me since so many of them don't live close to here and won't have anywhere to go. Coach has had us over for dinner at his house in the past, but I think it would be fun to bring some of the guys home, and I know my family would be welcome to that. I haven't been home in a while, so just getting back to see my family and all my relatives would be really exciting for me.
When I think back to stuff like that and how we do things every year, it kind of hits me how fast this is all flying by for me. A lot of people told me that would happen, but I didn't really believe them at the time. I guess in one sense it feels like freshman year was a long time ago, but at the same time I've been in college for four years and it seems like a flash. I can remember back when I was a freshman, I could barely do one drill without messing up. For me personally, my development has gotten a lot better with basketball. Really, just with everything I feel like I've grown up a lot. I've been around the block. I'm really used to it now and it's normal for me. At the same time, I just want to enjoy my senior year.
Jon came up with this idea before our first game of calling our senior year our farewell tour. It pretty much just means no matter what happens this season, we're not going to get discouraged and we're just going to try to enjoy it as much as we can. We can't control playing time or anything like that, so we're just going to take everything in and work as hard as we can like we have for the last three years and try to enjoy everything that comes with this last season because this is it for us.
Jon and I have talked a little bit about possibly going overseas once our careers are over here. We don't really know about how to go about trying to do that, but it would be awesome if we have that opportunity. Obviously it would be totally different. It would be a huge commitment that we would have to make. A lot of people are good enough to go over there but they just choose not to because it's so different. We're going to have to look at that and weigh the pros and cons of each thing. I think as the season goes on, we're probably going to get a better feel for if we can even go over there and where we would go and stuff like that, but we're still in the beginning processes of that.
At the same time, it's not like a do-or-die thing for me. That's not been my main goal in life, to play professional overseas basketball, but I'm just trying to keep my options open. The good thing about me and Jon is that I do think we have a lot of opportunities whether it's going overseas or getting a job over here. We're excited for it just to enter a new chapter in our lives.
As we enter the final few chapters here, I think I'm looking forward to the tournament run the most. That's definitely the most exciting part of the season for the fans and for us. We get to go to class for like two days a week and then the rest of the week we're at whatever site we're at and just practicing. It just seems like everyone is watching college basketball during that time and that's what I think is most exciting. When I was a kid in March, I would just glue my eyes to the television watching every tournament game I could find. Just being a part of it is still a cool experience for me. I can't wait for it again.
Until then, we've got a lot of practice between now and then. I've got to head to one now so I'll catch you all later. Happy Thanksgiving!
James Young scored 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting in UK's 105-76 win on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Before the season, John Calipari said he had as many as eight players capable of scoring 25 points on any given night.
Five games in, the Wildcats are well on their way to proving him right.
"Our whole team can score," James Young said. "If we all have open shots, we just tell them to take it because we can all score or get to the basket. If a guy has a hot hand for the night, we just try to get them the ball as much as we can."
Tuesday night was Young's, as the freshman guard became the third Kentucky player to reach the mark. He poured in 26 points in UK's 105-76 win over Texas-Arlington in Rupp Arena, following in the footsteps of teammates Julius Randle -- who had his fifth straight double-double with 22 points and 10 rebounds -- and Aaron Harrison in breaking Coach Cal's 25-point barrier.
"When you're 8 for 14 the way he played," Calipari said. "He had three assists, no (turnovers), played pretty good."
It took a little coaching from Calipari to make it happen.
Through his first four games, Young -- whom Coach Cal regularly calls the nation's best shooter -- had shot just 35.5 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range. Watching the tape from UK's win over Robert Morris on Sunday, Calipari noticed Young's problems were primarily mechanical.
He observed that Young was leaning back on his shot and not setting his feet, so Calipari summoned him into his office on Monday.
"You lean your shoulders back because your legs aren't under you and you're trying to get a little more oomph on your shot, and when you do that, you're basically fading away," Calipari said. "You're not going to be an aggressive consistent shooter on fade-away shots."
Unaccustomed to missing so regularly, Young applied his coach's advice willingly and immediately.
"I was frustrated," Young said. "I usually make shots, so when Coach Cal showed me that, I was just mind-blown. We easily fixed it."
Young would score 15 points on Tuesday before he missed a shot, rendering his struggles a distant memory. On the night, he made 5-of-10 3-pointers and 5-of-7 free throws.
"When I saw that most of the mechanics was right and just doing what Coach Cal told me to, I knew it was going to be a good night shooting," Young said.
To ensure that continues, Calipari is challenging Young. Even though shooting has always come naturally to the lefty, Young needs to hone his craft, says Coach Cal.
"He's one of those ones that you've got to love to get into the gym more," Calipari said. "Just get in there and shoot. You're 12 steps, you walk across the street."
But even if he does that, Young knows he won't be hitting shots every night. For that reason, he knows he needs to learn to respond better to misses. He's valuable to this Kentucky team in too many ways to disappear entirely because of a brick or two.
"I tend to put my head down a lot when I miss shots so he's just been getting on me and just saying let the shot go and keep moving on," Young said. "There will be more shots. I just listen to him and try not to put my head down and just keep moving on with the game."
And even if he did become the first shooter to ever avoid the occasional off night, Young is surrounded by too much talent to expect to be the featured scorer every time out.
"I can't score as much because we have a lot of people that can score," Young said. "If it's somebody's night, we just try to get them the ball as much as we can and I guess tonight was my night. They tried to get me the ball as much as they can and I just tried staying with my normal form and just getting some open shots I was hitting."
Young is one of three players to lead Kentucky in shot attempts through three games, and more will surely join the club in the coming weeks and months.
"We got too many guys that have that kind of talent so you know that some games you're feeling it you're going to get 10 or 12 (shots) and some games you're going to get four," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. "That's just how it is here."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Nov. 17:
Women's soccer: Arin Gilliland
Arin Gilliland, who is a MAC Hermann Award Watch List candidate, scored the game-winning goal in the 53rd minute, collecting her team-leading 12th goal of the season on a breakaway slotted far post. Gilliland also tabbed an assist on Kentucky's third goal from, freshman Zoe Swift, for her fourth multi-point game of the season, which also leads the team and ties for the SEC lead.
Women's soccer: Caitlin Landis
Caitlin Landis scored the game-opening goal in the 50th minute, putting home a rebound off a re-fire from a corner kick. The goal for the senior was her fourth of the season as she put Kentucky up 1-0 early.
Volleyball: Alexandra Morgan
Senior Alexandra Morgan had a tremendous week for the Wildcats as UK went 2-0 with a pair of sweeps on the road at Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Morgan opened the weekend by leading UK to a season-high 19 blocks. The Birmingham, Ala., native had a career-high 11 rejections which marked the most blocks by a Wildcat in a single match in the 25-point rally scoring era. She also contributed seven kills on a .438 hitting clip, as UK as a unit only managed to hit at a .186 clip. Against Ole Miss, she again led the squad with six total blocks to run her total to 17 for the two matches at a rate of a stunning 2.83 per set. She added six kills on .400 hitting. For the weekend, Morgan went errorless with 13 kills at a .419 clip and registered 4.00 points per set, just behind Whitney Billings' 4.08 per set who plays in every rotation.
Men's basketball: Julius Randle
Recorded a double-double in both games this week. He's just the fifth player in program history to begin the season with four-straight double-doubles, and the first since Reggie Hanson achieved the feat to begin the 1989-90 season.
His 27-point, 13-rebound effort against Michigan State gave him a third-straight 20-point, 10-rebound game to become the first Division I freshman to open with three-straight 20-10 games since Kansas State's Michael Beasley in 2007.
His 54 rebounds to begin his career are the most of any player in the John Calipari era.
Had a career-high two blocks against Robert Morris.
Scored 23 points and had nine rebounds as UK erased a 14-point second half deficit to even the game late in the second half vs. No. 2 Michigan State.
Men's basketball: James Young
Had a break-out offensive weekend for the Wildcats with a career-high 19 points against second-ranked Michigan State
Scored in double-figures in both games this week
Has sunk at least one 3-pointer in all four games this season for UK
Had career-highs of points, rebounds and field goals made against Michigan State
Logged career-highs in assists (3) and steals (2) in a win over Robert Morris
Dominique Hawkins played 18 minutes in UK's 87-49 win over Robert Morris on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari doesn't have to worry about pushing Dominique Hawkins in practice.
In fact, there are times when he even has to pull back on the reins with the freshman guard.
"The kid works so hard," Calipari said. "His heart rate is--I have to stop him because I'm afraid he's going to fall out."
Hawkins came to Kentucky as the final piece of a top-ranked recruiting class and the least-heralded of the eight Wildcat freshmen, leading most to assume the Richmond, Ky., native's future as a regular contributor was likely a year or more down the road. But just weeks into the season, Hawkins' tireless effort has become impossible to ignore.
He earned first-half playing time against Michigan State, holding his own in a 1-2 matchup. In the days that followed, Calipari said Hawkins' role would expand further.
In an 87-49 win over Robert Morris on Sunday, it was clear why.
"Coach Cal puts me in there to turn up on defense, give more energy," Hawkins said. "I know my role. What I'm supposed to do is put pressure on the ball and get our defense going. I'm doing great right now, I feel like, and Coach has been telling me to continue with the hard work that I'm doing."
A look at the final box score from the Wildcats' supposed revenge victory over the Colonials -- who ended UK's season a year ago in the NIT -- and Hawkins doesn't seem to have been a major factor. He scored four points -- the first of his college career -- and had three assists, a block, a steal and a rebound, but his impact went far beyond statistics.
Hawkins checked in at the 17:05 mark provided an instant shock of energy. Taking over the responsibility of hounding the opposing point guard even though he plays the wing on offense, Hawkins spearheaded the UK defense for all of his 18 minutes, often in a press that Calipari turned to extensively for the first time.
"Well, today when I was in I was putting a lot of pressure," Hawkins said. "Everybody sees me working hard and it's going to rub on everybody else and they're going to want to work harder. When everybody works hard, we're able to put a lot of pressure on the ball, get turnovers."
Given Hawkins' presence, it should come as little surprise the Cats turned in their best defensive performance of the season.
Robert Morris managed just 0.662 points per possession after averaging 1.165 in its first three games, shooting 23.2 percent from the field. UK forced 14 turnovers -- double the seven Michigan State committed on Tuesday -- and had 16 fast-break points after managing just two in the loss.
Hawkins had something to do with all of that.
"He just goes up and he adds energy to the game," Calipari said. "You saw how hard he runs the court so we could throw to him, so we could throw lobs, so we could throw to the post."
If the increased minutes weren't proof enough, Calipari said postgame that he is confident turning to Hawkins. His teammates, though many of them didn't know of Hawkins until he arrived this summer, have come to feel the same way.
"We all know how good Dominique is," said Aaron Harrison, who poured in a game-high 28 points. "Especially people that are from Kentucky, how he carried his team to the state championship and all that by himself. In practice he's definitely a force to be reckoned with, he's really strong, one of the most athletic guys on the team and he makes me a lot better too."
Playing on the White team in practice, Hawkins most often matchup up with Harrison, qualifying the elder of the two Harrison twins to speak on the experience of facing off against the 6-footer. Hawkins might be at a disadvantage on the practice floor when it comes to size and stars given by recruiting services, but he never backs down.
"Whoever I'm guarding, I'm pushing them and making sure they're going hard. If I'm not going hard on defense, then I'm not pushing myself," Hawkins said. "I'm pushing myself and when I'm pushing myself it's helping everybody else on the court."
In doing so, he's earned the respect of his coach and fellow Cats, as well as minutes.
Though it may come as a surprise to some he has carved out a niche so early on a team regarded by many as the most talented in the nation, Hawkins always believed he would play his way onto the floor.
"I envisioned myself playing a little bit," Hawkins said. "Not a ton, not starting, but I knew I was going to be able to find my role. Whatever my role is, I was going to just play it well."
The role, however, is a significant departure from the one to which he was accustomed in high school.
As Harrison noted, Hawkins was the featured player on a Madison Central team that won the Boys' Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena last spring. He averaged 20.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.8 steals during the tournament in catching Calipari's eye and earning an offer to attend the school he had always cheered on as a fan.
It's been an adjustment to move into a supporting role, but one he's happy to make.
"Without the ball, it does feel really weird because in high school I had it almost every time," Hawkins said. "But I like how I play with this team and it's my role not to have the ball as much. If we're able to win, I'm fine with it."