Punching Above His Weight

Tyler Ulis evades UofL’s Chinanu Onuaku.

Photo by Victoria Graff | Contributing Photographer
Tyler Ulis evades UofL’s Chinanu Onuaku.

By Guy Ramsey
Assistant Director of New Media at the University of Kentucky

Tyler Ulis looks different than your typical John Calipari point guard.

Coach Cal’s floor generals, in recent seasons, have been physical specimens, most standing well above 6 feet, but Ulis is 5-9.

What then prompted Calipari to offer Ulis a scholarship to come to Kentucky?

“He wasn’t afraid of the challenge,” Calipari said.

Through the first 10 games of his college career, Ulis showed that fearlessness repeatedly and earned fan-favorite status in the process. In the 13th, he erased any lingering doubt about whether a spotlight could get too bright for the diminutive freshman.

Not only would Saturday be Ulis’ first college road game, it would also be his debut in one of college basketball’s most heated rivalries. But as No. 1 UK prepared for a trip to the KFC Yum! Center to face No. 4 Louisville, Ulis had a similar reaction to when Coach Cal began recruiting him.

“I was more excited than nervous because it was my first away game,” Ulis said. “Being a freshman, I just wanted to see what the atmosphere felt like.”

The atmosphere, predictably, was crazy.

The 22,812 fans in attendance – a notable number wearing blue – were loud from well before tip, all the way through the final buzzer of UK’s 58-50 win in a defensive slugfest. Ulis was unfazed.

“He was really good today,” Calipari said. “That’s the best I’ve seen him play since I’ve coached him.”

Ulis was poised throughout, handling Louisville’s trademark pressure with little issue, but briefly exited late in the first half after taking an elbow from Chris Jones. He would receive treatment, return quickly and dominate from there.

“I think he’s a great basketball player,” said Louisville’s Rick Pitino. “He’s a true point guard who makes other people better.”

Prior to sustaining the cut – which would require three postgame stitches – Ulis had two points. Afterward, he had 12 for a total of 14. He would post just two assists, but committed no turnovers on an afternoon when UK had a season-high 18.

“He just led the team,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “Against a team like this, you need to make sure everything’s under control. He kept the game under control. He was hitting shots like he always does. Hit a floater. He was pretty, pretty, pretty good today.”

Ulis scored his career high on 5-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range, all the while setting the tone for a UK defense that held Louisville to 25.9-percent shooting and one assist. He rarely looked to shoot, but did so without hesitation when the moment called for it. His two biggest baskets came as UK built a double-digit lead for the first time in a hard-fought affair, burying a 3 when the Cats led by five, and another shot a minute later to give UK a 45-34 lead with 6:19 remaining.

“He’s incredible. He’s showing people — you guys — things you haven’t seen out of him before, but I’ve seen it because we’ve played on camps and teams all the time, so it’s nothing new to me,” Devin Booker said. “He’s a real special player.”

Ulis would return to a more familiar distributor role as the Cats drove home the dagger, penetrating and passing to Aaron Harrison for a 3 from his familiar spot on the left wing to give UK a 53-43 lead with 1:01 to go.

“They were really big,” Ulis said. “Three people hit big shots late: me, Aaron and Andrew hit three 3s late in the game, which really opened it up for us at that point of the game.”

Andrew Harrison’s late 3 was particularly notable after UK’s starter at point guard struggled for much of the day. After playing some of his best basketball in two wins over Louisville last season, he managed just three points and four assists against six turnovers.

“They’re not machines. They’re not computers,” Calipari said, repeating a familiar refrain. “I told him, ‘Man, I love you. I got your back. You’re my point guard. Stop it.’ He’s down.”

Down but certainly not out.

“Andrew took us to the national championship game last year,” Calipari said. “Andrew did. So what I have is I have two terrific point guards, who I can play together if I choose. If Andrew’s playing really well Tyler will maybe not play as much or I’ll put him in as a wing. If Tyler’s playing well, or out of his mind (then Andrew Harrison won’t play as much). That’s what’s good about this.”