Nobody has to remind Tyler Ulis he’s usually the smallest man on the court. Every now and then in practice he gets a reminder from his own coach. And he hates it.
“I even call him little guy,” John Calipari said. “Makes him so mad. ‘Give the little guy the ball.’ He just smokes; it's coming out of his ears when I do that. But the reality of it is he's really good.”
Vanderbilt found out first-hand just HOW good Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena. Ulis poured in a game-high 21 points and handed out five assists in Kentucky’s 76-57 win over the Commodores.
Play big? You bet. Three minutes into the second half, Vandy had cut a 37-27 halftime deficit to seven. The Wildcats got busy again, ripping off a 14-4 run, the last two buckets scored by Ulis on driving, twisting, impossible shots deep in the paint. The second came over Luke Kornet. That’s 7-foot-1 Luke Kornet. Ulis is listed at 5-foot-9, a full 16 inches shorter.
The fact that he got the shot off was a minor miracle. But Ulis is a major talent. “He's really competitive,” Calipari said. “He's really smart.”
And yes, he’s short. Not small – short. But he plays so, so big. Kevin Stallings was impressed.
“Ulis was probably the most dominant player on the floor for either team,” said the Vanderbilt coach. “I thought that he played better than probably anyone.”
There was more than enough credit to spread around. Jamal Murray had another second-half hot streak, which propelled him to an 18-point effort. “Jamal did a great job today,” Ulis said. “He didn’t force anything. He made plays he could make. When Jamal gets going, you can’t really stop him.”
Alex Poythress opened the game with a pair of strong moves to the basket, went dormant in foul trouble again but this time hit the re-start button and finished with 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the floor. And he contributed on defense which, he said, was the key to the Wildcats not blowing another big second-half lead.
“We got (big leads) playing defense, and we have to keep them by playing defense,” Poythress said. “You can’t be up 10 and be like, ‘We’re good. We’re going to win this game still with eight or 10 minutes left.’ We’ve still got to play defense like we did tonight.”
Poythress sent a message to his teammates with the effort he gave on the game’s first two possessions. “He’s just playing a completely different game,” Ulis said. “He’s coming out fighting. When we gave him the ball on the block he showed he was a man down there.”
Derek Willis didn’t post another flashy point total (seven) but his coach didn’t care. What Calipari liked were the nine rebounds, the blocked shot, the steal, the defense.
“I told him, Derek, you can miss shots when you rebound and block shots and defend,” Calipari said. “You don't have to make every shot. The way you were playing before, you had to make every shot because you were giving up a rebound, giving up defensively, you know? But it was a good effort for us.”
Ulis called it Kentucky’s best 40-minute effort of the season, crediting better on-court communication, which led to impressive performances. “We have a lot of trust in each other,” he said, “especially with Derek and Alex playing like that.”
Credit to all. But the gold star went to Ulis, who dictated pace and even told Calipari at halftime what the Cats should be running on offense in the second period.
“That’s just what I have to do as a point guard on this team because you have to lead your team,” Ulis said. “And with that comes a lot of responsibility, especially when you have young guys like we do.”
It seems like a lot to lay at the feet of a sophomore who’s just this season getting his first shot at piloting a college basketball team from the point. “I feel like it’s not pressure,” he said. “It’s just what I have to do.”
Yes, he’s short - which, Stallings said, has become an advantage. “He’s able to change directions faster. He’s able to get guys out of position, get them off balance, and get his body on their body and create contact. He does a great job at getting to the foul line,” the Vandy coach said. “He just understands how to take what he has and utilize it to its fullest advantage. That’s why he’s such a good player.”
His coach has absolutely no qualms about the man on the court who’s running his team. Said Calipari, “He's got the heart of a lion.”
And the soul of a Wildcat.