By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
I have to admit I’m a little bit biased. There are certain UK basketball players that I tend to immediately have a connection with as soon as they sign their letter of intent as a Kentucky player. It seems like when I see a new group of players come into the Big Blue Family there are certain ones that immediately are my favorites. Other times players grow to be a favorite as they play through their career at UK.
This guy, at number five on my list of favorite Kentucky basketball players, was one of those players that grew on me as his career unfolded.
When I said I was a little biased I should have also admitted that I usually root for the underdog. I’m all about seeing someone who may be limited in a certain area use that as motivation to achieve great accomplishments when all the so-called experts are doubting their ability. This player is the epitome of that type situation.
When he started his high school varsity basketball career in Illinois he was a 5-2, 115-pound point guard. Through hard work and perseverance he went on to become a McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classic selection by his senior year. He was rated as the 20th best player in his class coming out of high school.
Of course by now you have probably guessed that in fifth place on my list of favorite all-time basketball players at UK is Tyler Ulis. You know, the Tyler Ulis that was one of the top three point guards in assist-to-turnover ratio in all of college basketball during the 2015-2016 season. The point guard that helped lead UK to a 38-1 season record and a trip to the Final Four in 2015 and an SEC Championship and NCAA round of 32 finish in 2016.
His accomplishments were staggering for a 5-9, 160-pound player at the major college level. By the end of his sophomore season he was named a consensus First Team All-American, the shortest player to achieve that distinction since 1958, and was also named the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year winner. Ulis also was the SEC Player of the Year and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. The only other player in SEC history to receive both awards in the same year was Anthony Davis.
Ulis led UK to an SEC Tournament Championship in 2016 by averaging 24 points and five assists per game over the three-day event. He scored 30 points against 17th ranked Texas A&M in the SEC championship game and was named the MVP of the tourney. And the list of awards and accomplishments goes on and on.
But as I said in my previous article to open this series, my favorite players aren’t the guys that scored the must points or had the greatest dunks or even won the most championships. My favorite players are the guys that I felt like I had the greatest connection with as a fan.
In Tyler Ulis’s case it’s still hard to imagine a player that stands 5-9 winning all the awards I just mentioned. But what really stood out about Ulis was his leadership on the floor and his ability to get other players to play better around him because of his leadership and basketball IQ.
Here’s what UK coach John Calipari said about Ulis after watching him win award after award at the end of his sophomore season, “He’s the best floor general (Kentucky) has had since I’ve coached.” That’s high praise from a coach who also coached the likes of John Wall, Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe, among others.
Ulis at Kentucky was the ultimate competitor. He hated to lose. Who can forget his freshman performance against fourth ranked U of L when he was hit in the eye with an inadvertent elbow from a U of L player and went on to score 12 points in the second half, including two key three-point shots down the stretch that helped UK defeat the Cardinals at the Yum Center?
I will always remember the look in Ulis’s eye in the newspaper picture after the game. He had blood streaming down from a cut in the corner of his right eye but you could tell he was completely focused on the game at hand. No distractions whatsoever.
Even UK nemesis Mike Krzyzewski, head coach at Duke, was extremely complimentary of Ulis after his Blue Devils lost to UK in an early November game during the 2015-2016 season. Krzyzewski said, “God was good to him. He didn’t give him height, but gave him a heart that’s five times bigger than most people’s.”
And that quote really sums up my feelings about Tyler Ulis. While playing for Kentucky he had a heart that was five times bigger than most people’s, he always played with a chip on his shoulder as the ultimate competitor and was the best floor general to play for John Calipari at UK. Who could ask for more from your point guard?
I am a little biased and always cheer for the underdog. But who could not cheer for a kid that beat all the odds as a 5-2 point guard playing in Chicago, who came to play for a Wildcat program that rarely recruits a player under 6 feet tall and ended up as a point guard in the NBA? Those are some big accomplishments for anyone, let alone a 5-9, 160-pound warrior who never understood what the word “quit” means.