Author: Paul Ables
The Kentucky Wildcats survived their first game of the year and prevailed with a 72-69 victory over the Maryland Terrapins. Let’s get into it by discussing three key takeaways from the Cats’ regular season opener.
1) Jarrod Polson was the hero for Kentucky
Who would have predicted that Jarrod Polson would save the game for the Wildcats? The former walk-on point guard has scored seven points in his career, so it would only make sense that he poured in ten points in the season opener. Polson made play after play and was a steady presence for the young and inexperienced Wildcats.
Regular starting point guard Ryan Harrow was limited with a case of the flu, so John Calipari played Polson early and often. He did not commit a turnover and had some of the biggest plays of the game. None was bigger than his second half steal off of a missed free throw, which Jarrod converted into an improbable reverse layup that put Kentucky up by four points.
Polson also followed up a missed layup by Nerlens Noel with an offensive rebound and putback that steadied the lead for the Wildcats yet again. Then in crunch time, Polson stepped up to the line in the game’s final seconds and converted two free throws to ice the game.
This is a great story and has to make all Kentucky fans proud. Polson is a local boy who has patiently waited his turn during these past few years and is now capitalizing on his opportunities. If he can continue to emerge as an effective player with a defined role in Calipari’s rotation, Jarrod Polson will establish himself as a true fan favorite and could have a story similar to that of Josh Harrellson from a few years ago.
2) That’s the Kyle Wiltjer that we’ve been waiting to see!
Up until last night’s game versus Maryland, sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer had been somewhat of a disappointment. He scored plenty of points in Kentucky’s first two exhibitions, but lacked effort on defense and failed to grab rebounds or loose balls. For a 6’9″ forward, that was simply unacceptable and Calipari urged Kyle to play with more energy and hustle.
Wiltjer did just that and played absolutely fantastic last night. He led the Wildcats’ first half offensive show and drained shots from all over the court, including three shots from behind the arc. Wiltjer’s three-point shot was very effective and created a lot of spacing for the other players to score on open shots.
However, the most impressive aspect of Wiltjer’s game was the rest of his box score. Kyle pulled down six rebounds, blocked three shots and dished out two assists. This is what he has to do game in and game out in order to earn his playing time. He certainly did so last night and in a game when the team struggled to rebound, his six boards and effective post defense were vitally important.
3) Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding…
For a roster that features post players standing 7’0″, 6’11″, 6’9″ and 6’8″ tall, it is simply inexplicable how Kentucky got completely dominated on the glass by Maryland. The Terps front court, led by center Alex Len, cleaned up the glass and grabbed 54 rebounds in the game, compared to only 38 for Kentucky.
Most amazing of all are the 28 offensive rebounds that Maryland cleaned up. On one hand, there were a lot of long rebounds that bounced away from Kentucky’s men in the post. However, there were also plenty of opportunities for Wildcat players to grab loose balls or hold onto rebounds that they simply lost out on.
In my opinion, this is not a concerning area long-term for this team. I expect them to be a very good rebounding team for most of the season and should be one of the best in the nation by the end of the year. They possess a strong, athletic, versatile front court that most teams simply cannot match.
However, their effort level was not there against Maryland and I am sure they will receive the message loud and clear from this point forward. The players have to get stronger, tougher and more physical and now they can learn from their mistakes in order to improve in this aspect of the game.
Kentucky is now 1-0 and moves on to another tough game, this time versus Duke in Atlanta. The rebounding has to improve dramatically for the team to have a chance at winning, but I expect them to play well and give the Blue Devils all that they can handle. In the meantime, though, the Wildcats learned plenty of valuable lessons in their first game of the season and still earned a meaningful victory. You cannot ask much more than that at this point of the season.