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By LARRY VAUGHT
His first two years at Kentucky, the Wildcats went to the Final Four each time and won the national championship in 2013. Coming off the success he had at West Jessamine High School the last two years of his prep career, UK junior Jarrod Polson expected this to be another banner year.
“This is not what we were expecting,” said Polson Friday after UK lost to Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Not only was it UK’s 11th loss, but the Cats scored a season-low 48 points — a low UK never reached during Billy Gillipsie’s two years and had not reached in seven seasons. Not only that, but it was the fourth straight loss by double digits away from Rupp Arena since center Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury.
“No, not at all did I think this could ever happen this year. We thought we had a lot of talent coming in. It’s not like we have not been working hard, either,” Polson said. “We had a great week of practice before this. We definitely didn’t expect this loss. But we can’t do anything about it now but hope for the best.
“I think we have talent. I am probably biased. I think we have the talent to beat any team in the country on a given night. I don’t think talent is necessarily the problem. We just can’t, I guess, stay focused for 40 minutes. There were spurts where we got on runs and then we collapsed on defense and they made a 3 or something like that. When that happens and they get beer muscles, you can’t really stop it.”
Beer muscles are what Kentucky coach John Calipari defined earlier this season as letting an opponent have its way to where it plays better than it can because it gets to believing it can do that.
Kentucky lost its top six players off last year’s championship team, but had the No. 1 recruiting class again and was ranked third in the AP preseason poll, a spot Calipari said immediately was way too high. Still, even then Calipari likely would not have thought this team would lose seven games by double digits and be dominated by mediocre teams the way it was to put UK in the NIT, not the NCAA.
“I definitely think it is frustrating for him (Calipari). You have seen his resume. His teams are always in the (NCAA) tournament and playing their best at this time of year. I guess we are not the best we could be right now. We can’t look back, just forward,” Polson said.
“I don’t really know why we have been so inconsistent. You can blame it on being young or not enough experience or something. We just can’t seem to find what it takes to stay on a run. We beat Florida and then lose again (to Vanderbilt). We have had a lot of those cases and then go right to the next game and take a bad loss. I don’t really know the answer, but we better find it out soon.”
Does the team lack mental toughness, physical toughness or both?
“They (Vanderbilt) out-toughed us physically. They were driving to the basket at will on us and we couldn’t drive on them and when we did we missed layups and open shots,” Polson said. “I think they physically out-toughed us like a lot of teams have. They are mentally tough, too. When they are on a run like that, it is hard to stop them. And when we played bad like that, we had no chance. We don’t seem to be tough enough to snap out of it.”
Polson said having more experienced players like the previous two UK teams had “would probably help” at times.
“Last year had some veterans that played. Kyle (Wiltjer) is really the only one on our team that played at all last year and he didn’t play that many minutes. That might be the case, but you can’t blame it on that now. We played a whole season by now, so we have experience. I don’t know … we just didn’t come out and play to the best of our ability and Vanderbilt did. They just beat us fair and square,” Polson said.
He said rumors about chemistry problems on the team are not true.
“It is a bunch of good guys really. It is not like there are chemistry problems,” Polson said. “We all like each other off the court. It is not really that. I don’t really know what it is. Vandy did a great job. They hit shots tonight and we can’t take that away. They played one of their best games, and we certainly did not. We could have played a lot better than we did. We have to figure it out why we didn’t play our best. And not just this game, but other games.
Polson admitted maybe players kept believing the season would work out because Calipari’s past teams always seemed to figure things out by tournament time.
“We expected that everything we come together. We thought maybe we had turned the corner at Florida when we got that win,” Polson said. “But it has happened a lot in the season where we win one and get a bad loss the next one. I don’t really know what the problem is or I would have helped fixed it. Obviously, none of us know and that’s a problem, too.”