Kentucky’s 5-9 Tyler Ulis coming up big in NCAA Tournament
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Being Kentucky’s smallest player on the floor hasn’t prevented 5-foot-9 point guard Tyler Ulis from repeatedly coming up big for the Wildcats.
He’ll likely need to do it again this weekend.
Next up for Ulis and Kentucky to complete an unbeaten championship season is a Final Four rematch with Wisconsin.
The Badgers (35-3) match up well with Kentucky (38-0), averaging nearly three fewer turnovers per game and shooting slightly better from 3-point range. So not only will the Wildcats have to work harder to create scoring opportunities, they must shoot better from the perimeter.
Those challenges seem tailor-made for Ulis, a pesky defender and arguably Kentucky’s best ballhandler. And he’s capable of knocking down clutch shots; his 3-pointer helped Kentucky rally to beat Notre Dame in Saturday’s Midwest Region final.
“I like to lead,” said Ulis, who backs up Andrew Harrison but has frequently played with him and twin brother Aaron Harrison. “Certain guys, I just try to get them into the game and tell them what to do. I just try to be a leader on the court.”
Ulis leads Kentucky averaging 3.7 assists per game, just ahead of Andrew Harrison (3.6). His lob passes to Kentucky’s big men have often resulted in memorable, thunderous dunks.
“I won’t say my court vision or awareness has improved, but I’ve been better at throwing lobs,” Ulis added. “That’s something I struggled with early in the year because I was used to throwing to guys and everybody was, like, 6-3 in high school. Everybody’s now on the same (page), and we’re doing a great job with the lobs.”
Then there are moments when he has to do it himself.
In Saturday’s nail-biter against the Fighting Irish, Kentucky trailed 59-53 with about six minutes left and was struggling to score. Ulis’ timely 3-pointer sparked a Wildcats rally, and Kentucky went on to win 68-66.
“The whole bench was yelling at me, ‘shoot the ball, shoot the ball!’ when (Karl-Anthony Towns) had it,” Ulis said of the shot. “He kicked it out, and I just had to knock it down.”
Ulis has been just as fearless shooting in traffic, putting up his soft jumper over several taller Cincinnati defenders in a round-of-32 victory. Though shorter than nearly everyone he plays against, he succeeds because of a will that won’t let him quit.
“People look at his size, but that’s not a disadvantage to me,” fellow guard Devin Booker said of Ulis. “As you can see, he can still perform at this level and he has played against bigger guards. We all see what Tyler can do.”
Ulis is also proving to be one of Kentucky’s go-to guys in the postseason, averaging 29 minutes per contest. He has also added nearly seven points per game to his average while posting a 4.3-1.1 assists-to-turnover ratio.
None of Ulis’ poise and resilience surprises Mike Taylor, his high school coach at Marian Catholic in Chicago Heights, Illinois.
The coach recalls Ulis playing his freshman year in high school with a stress fracture in his foot, so it wasn’t a big deal for the guard to continue playing with a butterfly bandage over his right eye after taking an elbow against archrival Louisville in December. He led Kentucky with a career-high 14 points in the 58-50 win.
“I know how competitive and how skilled he is, and all he needed was an opportunity to show what he can do,” Taylor said. “He dealt with those types of things for four years, and he just doesn’t seem to slack off. He just toughs it out.”
Ulis’ toughness was on display again during the Southeastern Conference Tournament, when went toe-to-toe in a confrontation with 7-2 Auburn center Trayvon Reed. Neither player appeared ready to come to blows, but Ulis — who drew a technical foul — didn’t back down as he stared up at Reed.
Ulis later downplayed the incident, saying it was just a heat-of-the-moment reaction. Maybe, but he’s had a lot of big moments this year.
His 3-pointer in the second-overtime against Texas A&M in January put Kentucky ahead for good in a 70-64 victory, and helped the Wildcats grind out back-to-back OT victories.
Said Aaron Harrison: “He’s a big reason we’re in the Final Four and a big part of our team.”