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Tyler Ulis Is Great, But Andrew Harrison Is The Straw That Stirs The Drink For Kentucky

The media seems intent upon heaping deserved accolades on Tyler Ulis, but are doing so at the expense of Andrew Harrison.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

I have complained about this a lot, and I feel compelled to do so because it is a case of many in the sports media poorly understanding the sport they cover, and engaging in groupthink. Here’s the Courier-Journal’s Adam Himmelsbach:

Tyler Ulis is the heartbeat: The offense just runs more smoothly when the freshman point guard is in the game. Midway through the second half, after UNC had sliced the deficit to nine, Ulis carved through the lane on back-to-back plays and found teammates for easy baskets, the second being an artful alley-oop to Willie Cauley-Stein. Ulis needs to play more than 18 minutes per game. I think he’s the most important player on this team.

I really hate to keep harping on this, but it is pushing my buttons. Tyler Ulis played very well, but without Harrison, I don’t think we win that game. Ulis puts very little pressure on the defense, can’t get out of traps, although he does other, very good and useful things. He is certainly worthy of praise and will hopefully be worthy of more going forward, and certainly eight assists is noteworthy. He has a lot to commend in his game, and I’m outrageously happy to have him with us.

But what bugs me is that it was Harrison who consistently broke down the Tar Heels, not Ulis. Ulis made some nice passes to hot shooters, and at least one beautiful dime to Willie Cauley-Stein. But Harrison did that, and more. He created mismatches and open opportunities that often result in fouls because they are close to the basket. The value of that is completely overlooked by the sports commentariat, and it annoys me greatly. Tyler Ulis has become a media favorite, and everybody loves the little guy who plays great against the gargantuans. But this meme is hurting Harrison unfairly by making him look like a backup, or somehow unworthy of his position as the first platoon starter.  Himmelsbach's plea for more minutes illustrates this precisely.

As an example of what I mean, Andrew Harrison shot ten free throws yesterday. Ulis: zero. Ulis, to his great credit, has learned to play the game in a way that minimizes the negative impacts of his diminutive size and maximizes the impact of his floor vision and basketball IQ. That’s certainly something we can all love, but it’s wrong to love it at the expense of what Andrew has been doing for two years at Kentucky, and just gets better at all the time. Ulis is a complete departure for Calipari at point guard, and you can tell by Cal’s recruiting of Isaiah Briscoe that he’s not interested in going to a full-time point guard who doesn’t attack the rim.

Ulis makes the offense look better, not because it actually is, but rather because it looks prettier to move the ball quickly around the perimeter and into the post than it does to drive into the defense, draw it, and kick it to open shooters, get fouled or make contested layups. But the latter is far more effective as a means of winning games because it creates more positive outcomes and generally better shots.

Those who may think I’m minimizing what Ulis brings are letting their emotions override their reason. As a 5‘10" guy, I’m as happy as anyone to see how well a smaller man can play in a big man’s game even without freakish athleticism like Mugsy Bogues or Isaiah Thomas.  From a pure value standpoint, Ulis is useful for the change of pace he offers, as well as his floor vision and savvy. But given the choice between the two, anyone who truly gets the college game would take Andrew Harrison first.

Fortunately, we don’t have to choose — Kentucky gets both, and that’s yet another reason why the Wildcats are #1 in the land, and deserve to be.

Finally, I have to toss a mocking sneer toward the blog of one of our major foes, the Duke Blue Devils. So sayeth the Duke Basketball Report:

UNC had 19 turnovers, and of those, 10 were by Marcus Paige and JP Tokoto, with 4 and 6 respectively. A lot of the pressure on Paige came from freshman Tyler Ulis. Ulis is Kentucky’s most effective point guard in our opinion.

Let’s see - if we credit a point for assists, a point for steals, and a negative point for turnovers, it comes out thus:

Player/Stat Ulis Harrison
Points 3 11
Assist points 8 5
Steals points 0 2
Turnover points -3 -2
Total 8 16

Just in case you’re wondering, Ulis played 24 minutes and Andrew 25.

Now, I know this measurement is crude and inaccurate, but I think it’s directionally valid at least, and doesn’t even measure the drawn fouls by Andrew and his targets that we mentioned earlier. If we’re going to say that Ulis is "most effective," the statistics should bear that out to some degree, at least. By my lights, they just don’t.  Yes, Ulis' pressure definitely made Paige less effective, and Ulis is unquestionably the best on-ball defender Kentucky has, but not by a mile.

Ulis is very attractive to the media and non-Kentucky fans for two reasons — the Harrison’s petulance last season which made them somewhat hard for even some Kentucky fans to like (notwithstanding Aaron’s heroics in the NCAA Tournament) and the allure of Ulis for all the aforementioned reasons, especially in comparison. This is one of the things that frustrates me about the sports media, particularly general columnists like Himmelsbach who have a poor understanding of the technical machinations of college basketball. They engage in a lot of what we would call beauty contests, and it is both unfair and unbalanced. Someone has to counterbalance that "I like player X because he makes me feel good" stuff with actual basketball comprehension.

I have limited hopes it will be embraced broadly by fans, since so many seem to be only marginally interested in college basketball and willing to jump on bandwagons and memes in our Twitter-and-Facebook-driven society of the early 21’s century. Having said that, I know there are some out there who really get the nuts and bolts of the game, especially Kentucky fans, and it is to them I am speaking here.