What images come to mind when you think about senior night?
Lachrymose parents, fans, coaches and players. A roaring crowd chanting the names of beloved seniors. Teammates trembling as they watch their brothers receive the honor and recognition they worked for since the first day they put on that practice jersey.
Senior night is supposed to be the last time a group of emotionally-charged seniors pour the last ounce of sweat out of their bodies on their home court in front of adoring home fans.
Not at Kentucky.
The Wildcats (22-8) defeated the University of Alabama (12-18) 55-48 on Tuesday night, but prior to the game all of the UK seniors were honored for their dedication to the Big Blue faithful.
All two of them. Seniors Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson started for the first time this season in their final game at Rupp Arena.
Fifth-year head coach John Calipari felt his two seniors have benefitted from the amount of pro-level competition they have faced, especially Hood.
“He’s played with more NBA players than any other player in history. He played with more in his time here,” Calipari said.
Calipari’s ability to attract future NBA-lottery draft picks to Lexington is unheralded in college basketball, but the “one and done” recruiting system has resulted in four total seniors on the roster in the last two years, including transfer graduate student Julius Mays.
Calipari implemented an all-freshman starting lineup on Feb. 1 against the University of Missouri and has used the lineup exclusively ever since. A lack of experience has been a source of frustration for the Big Blue Nation this season.
The young Cats found themselves in a quandary on Tuesday night. The Wildcats had lost their previous two games against unranked opponents, including a home loss against the (11-19) University of South Carolina.
The Wildcats free-fell from a preseason number one ranking and appeared to be doomed for a crash landing in Tuesday night’s game. The Cats trailed by three points at halftime after shooting just 24 percent from the field.
Stagnation on the offensive end led to several shots being hoisted and often missed just before the shot clock expired.
When the second half resumed, the Cats improved their shooting, going 7-10 from the field in the first seven minutes. The Cats righted the ship and captured the victory, but the shooting woes reappeared as the total field goal percentage was a mere 32.8 percent.
The adrenaline-fueled Hood felt the missed perimeter shots were justified. “You have to continue to think next, next, keep going and keep moving on to the next shot,” Hood said.
Hood sank an off-balance, shot-clock-beating three-pointer that was inexplicably waved off by officials just before the half. The shot epitomized the career of Hood. The senior forward’s career, like the shot, was stripped of its merit by unforeseen circumstances that were out of his control.
Hood and Polson have both lost an ample amount of playing time to underclassmen in their years at UK, but have remained faithful to their home state. Polson believes their presence has provided senior leadership for a young Wildcats team.
“We haven’t played that much in tournament times, but we’ve been there and know what it’s like,” Polson said, “it’s win or go home.”
March Madness is here. The underclassmen-led Kentucky Wildcats are clinging to the last spot in the AP Top 25 poll after once being the head of the ranking. One final regular-season game remains against the new top-ranked team, the University of Florida Gators.
Now is the time for the Big Blue Nation to be sanguine. Hood and Polson understand why they are the only two seniors on the roster.
For all the speculation about the Cats lack of experience, look no further than the scene on senior night. This is a young, talented team that has yet to reach its potential or hit its peak.
Hope that this talented Kentucky basketball team is about to ascend the NCAA Tournament Mountain to the Final Four summit should be the only emotion in the hearts of the Big Blue Nation.