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Let’s Not Forget How Great Tyler Ulis is Playing

Someone somewhere may be scoring more. Someone else's team may have a better record. But is there really a better player in the country?

Gunnar Rathbun-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not normally a big fan of the Courier-Journal's coverage of Kentucky college sports. I'm still not sure why the 15-3 Cardinals are covered like an elite national contender while the 14-4 Cats are treated like an emergency room patient.

Too much of the C-J coverage consists of rehashing the official media interview quotes. However, there was a big reveal in the C-J the morning after the Arkansas game that did not come from John Calipari, John Robic or one of the designated players.

The day's best quote came from a Chicago-area basketball fan named James Ulis, and kudos to the Courier's Kyle Tucker for pursuing that angle.

Said James Ulis about his son, a college point guard named Tyler:

"His mom watched video of that interview [the one after the Auburn loss in which her son called out some teammates for "not showing up"] and was really disturbed by it, because she knows he's sad. In high school, we didn't talk after games. No one talked in the car. He takes losing very bad. So I just try to encourage him. A great team leader will lead when times are good -- 38-0 -- and when times are bad, when you've got a few losses."

Thanks to his dad for pointing out why Tyler Ulis is [a] a dynamic leader; [b] the best point guard in the nation; and [c] a too-quickly forgotten candidate for this year's Wooden Award. I fear that the Wooden Award voting too often seeks out the gaudy statistics. And, like the Heisman voting, it focuses way too much on team success.

Like most of us after the Arkansas game, I want to get excited about Skal's awakening. I, too, would like to keep hoping that Derek Willis can play out this string right into April, grabbing rebounds, blocking shots, hitting from the corner.

But it's time to shine the spotlight on Tyler Ulis. I don't see every point guard every night, but I can't imagine anyone is playing any better.

I mean, the guy is five-foot-nine! He was kind of a novelty on a team with two Harrisons and a Booker in the backcourt - until the last third of the season, when we all saw he was more than a cute little performing chihuahua. He had game!

But then the Harrisons, Booker and much of the rest of that historic team took the money and ran, leaving Ulis on his own. And the question became: Can he put his team on his shoulders, like a truly great point guard should?

Case closed. Not only is he playing smart, alert, see-the-whole-court, but he's taking the shots and scoring the points this team desperately needs.

He's engineering the screens and picks, then popping off them to take those three's and those teardrop two's and those playground backboard bounces. And he's driving into the paint, dishing off, getting fouled, grabbing loose balls, rebounding, taking the toughest defensive assignments - everything.

He was supposed to have lots of help. Those two freshmen point guards were supposed to be so good one wondered whether Ulis might even become a utility guy off the bench.

Hah! As if! Ever! Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray have frankly been a puzzlement. They're both superb athletes who do amazing things in games, things that don't always show up in the box scores. But they have freshmen inexperience and freshmen habits that are holding them back.

Briscoe still thinks he has to do, and can do, everything. His mentality is take the ball and drive, first, second and third. We've seen that before in Lexington and it's rarely a pretty thing. DeAndre LigginsMichael Kidd-Gilchrist and James Young were bailed out by the success their teams had, and by all the other ways they contributed. Archie Goodwin wasn't as lucky.

And yet, Briscoe can be a spectacular athlete, getting impossible shots off inside and along the baseline. And he's the best two-point shooter from the elbow that the team has.

Murray can be a points machine. But neither he nor Briscoe can execute a fast-break to save their lives. Both see the hoop and that's all they see. Both see three men in front of them and immediately reach back for the kinds of shots they used to make in high school. Teammates may get tired of trailing them on their individual journeys up the court.

Also, Murray's bad habits often get him in trouble. If you were smart enough, and lucky enough, to mute the TV and listen to Tom Leach and Mike Pratt the other night, you heard them talk about Murray's first dribble. It's in one place, at his side, rather than forward. It's what he's been doing probably his entire basketball life. And it costs him an advantage over the man guarding him. That one hesitation allows his man to get in front of him and for the double team to arrive.

Okay, contrast all that with the nearly flawless mechanics of Tyler Ulis. He's always thinking two moves ahead, never gives up his dribble, rarely makes a pointless pass and hits free throws with Kyle Macy-like consistency. And if you want to see a leader emerge, watch him in those mostly pointless dead-ball gatherings that have become de rigueur around the free throw circle. Ulis has made them more than just a let's-touch-hands come-together. He's talking, instructing, strategizing, calming, praising or sometimes glaring.

They say Napoleon nearly conquered the world because he was so short. That was his attempt at something to prove. Tyler Ulis has been doing his conquering on the basketball court, a sport primarily defined by the height of its participants. He has seen kids a foot taller than he is get coddled, praised and scholarshipped on the off-chance they could block a shot.

He has been saying, "Hey, lemme play" probably his entire athletic life. And he's also been saying, "The basket may be 10 feet up there, but the ball is down here on the court. And down here on the court, I'm in charge."