Last season Tyler Ulis averaged only 23.8 minutes per game, sharing Kentucky’s point guard position with Andrew and, at times, Aaron Harrison. Even so, one of his teammates believed he might be watching the best point guard in America.
“I almost thought that last year,” said forward Derek Willis, who thinks Ulis now IS the best in the country. “He’s pretty talented, seriously. He makes good decisions. He’s just a very good player. He’s very smart.”
Smart, and durable. Ulis leads the Southeastern Conference in minutes played, at 36.0 per game. And in UK’s three losses, he was on the floor an average of 39 per. Against LSU, he never left the floor in a game where his team needed every ounce of his talent.
Numbers say Ulis is developing into one of the best floor generals John Calipari has ever coached, including John Wall and Brandon Knight, both of whom are starring in the NBA. Like both, Ulis is being called upon not only to distribute the basketball, but score.
Ulis has gone for at least 20 in four of Kentucky’s last five games, including a career-high 23 in the lossat Baton Rouge. Opposing defenses spend so much time and energy chasing Jamal Murray or collapsing on Alex Poythress, it leaves Ulis with open looks. And he’s glad to see them.
“I think what they’re trying to do is make me shoot the ball, because they don’t want me in the lane,” said Ulis, who uses his extraordinary quickness to penetrate and find the open man. “But I know I can shoot the ball. I’m going to keep shooting it. When I start making shots, it makes our team even better.”
Ulis, Murray and Isaiah Briscoe poured in jumper after jumper against Mississippi State, helping the Wildcats rush off to a 20-point lead. Of course, the Bulldogs made almost all of it disappear before the Cats put them away.
“When we’re all playing so well it’s hard to stop us because we have so many options,” said Ulis.
Against stiffer competition, the odds of all three are getting open looks are small. Ulis would just as soon be dishing to a big man for a high-percentage shot. Often times it is Ulis who benefits from the two-man game Calipari favors.
“(Opponents) are playing pick-and-rolls different ways,” Calipari said. “They're going under (screens) and now he's shooting the ball. We're telling him you've got to take that shot. He's coming off pick-and-rolls. Our bigs are doing a much better job of screening so that he can.”
In a win over Mississippi, Ulis became the only Wildcat ever to post a 20-point, 10-assist, six-steal game – this from a program that produced not only Wall and Knight but guys like Travis Ford, Kyle Macy, Dirk Minniefield and Ralph Beard.
“I’m just trying to do what they need me to do out there,” he said. “I understand this team needs me to score more than last year. Coach stressed that to me. I’m just trying to go out there and do that.”
His teammates appreciate the offensive support.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Poythress said. “He’s just a great player, always in the right spot when he needs to be on offense. That’s more a testament to him knowing where to be, how to play.”
Willis said he does what he can when he’s on the floor by making sure his spacing is such that Ulis has the proper amount of room to operate.
“We ask a lot out of Tyler,” he said. “We ask him to run the team, ask him to hit shots, guard a guy 94 feet. He has the hardest job on the team. It’s a lot, but if we can help him anyway we can, that’s what I try to do.”
Ulis will be trying to direct the Wildcats to a win at Auburn Saturday. He’s on a nine-game streak with at least four assists per game. The last UK guard to do that – Marquis Teague, who quarterbacked the 2012 Wildcats to the NCAA championship.
Naturally, if the Tigers overplay elsewhere and leave him open, Ulis won’t hesitate to pull the trigger.
“I love it,” he said. “I hope they keep leaving me open.”