Tyler Ulis, MVP

Tyler Ulis picked up his second foul against Vanderbilt with 6:58 left in the first half.

He went to the bench, which has become the accepted – almost automatic – practice in college basketball these days. In fact, more often than not, a player with two first-half fouls won’t get back in the game until the second half.

Ulis was back in the game two minutes later. In that time, there was a perceptible change in Kentucky’s offense. Gliding up and down the court on ice skates, the Cats had built a 29-16 lead. With Ulis out, the ice skates became snowshoes. The ball stopped moving. The passes, screens and cuts lost their crispness. Passes meandered around the perimeter, the players seemed confused and out of their rhythm, some bad shots were taken.

Kentucky did not score for nearly another four minutes, and the lead was down to seven and dwindling. Ulis came back in the game, stole the ball, set up Charles Matthews for a shot, the lead went back to nine, and the UK ship was righted.

Tyler Ulis had 21 points in UK's 76 to 57 win over Vandy. Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF

Tyler Ulis had 21 points in UK’s 76 to 57 win over Vandy. Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF

Any Wooden Award voter wondering just how valuable this candidate is to his team should have scribbled some notes and filed them away. Ulis may not end the season with the gaudy statistics of, say, Melo Trimble at Maryland or Buddy Hield at Oklahoma – or even his own teammate, Jamal Murray. He may not have a dunk reel like Ben Simmons at LSU. Who knows? He might not (heaven forbid) be able to put on a big national show at the Final Four.

But those of us who watch him every game are amazed at his ability to do what he does. He’s fun to watch, a waterbug dribbling through and around all those tall trees, the ball never leaving the other end of his yo-yo string. But he’s not just putting on a show. He’s as much a complete player as his two most illustrious – and taller – predecessors at the position, 6-foot-4 John Wall and 6-foot-3 Brandon Knight.

We got a glimpse of all that last year, of course, but last year John Calipari could afford to spot Ulis. Andrew Harrison carried the heavy load. What went unnoticed, though, was that through the SEC and NCAA tourneys Ulis actually led the Cats in minutes played (until that last Wisconsin game, when Calipari admittedly went with the Harrisons down the stretch “out of loyalty”).

So the expectations were high this year about how good Ulis would be with the ball and the playing time all to himself. With high-powered scorers like Murray, Skal Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe coming in (yes, we did think Skal and Briscoe would be high-powered scorers), all Ulis had to do was bring the ball upcourt, set the offense, dish and stay out of the way.

Uhhhh, no! For a variety of well-documented reasons – lack of a post presence, primarily – when Kentucky is in its half-court set, it has a tendency to use the entire shot clock. Soon, it’s under 10 and Ulis is evaluating his options.

When he was point guard on the New York Knicks’ NBA championship teams of the early 1970s, Walt Frazier once observed that, for 45 minutes, everyone called for the ball – “Clyde, Clyde, over here, I’m open” – until the games’ final minutes. Then, he said, he only saw the backs of teammates’ heads. Given that his teammates included Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, Cazzie Russell, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and Dick Barnett, it’s unlikely anyone was shy about taking a pressure shot. Still, it makes a great story!

One wonders if Ulis sees only the backs of people’s heads. He certainly sees teammates who give the ball right back to him. Then it’s five seconds on the clock, and his options become Murray (who could probably get off a shot sitting in the back seat of a Mini Cooper) or take the shot himself.

I don’t think anyone expected Ulis to be a scoring leader on this team, but he’s led the team in five of the last eight games, is averaging 19 points per game in SEC play and has shown a remarkable ability to drain that buzzer-beater, whether from beyond the three-point line or in the paint.

Those are the kinds of things that address value and leadership. I’m guessing that when he speaks to teammates in those informal huddles around the free throw circle or glares into someone’s eyes, he’s not being ignored.

He doesn’t scream like his coach. But his play on the floor sure does. VT