Tyler Ulis: From a Second Option to SEC Player of the Year

The Tennessean-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Ulis made just one shot in five attempts during Kentucky’s double-overtime win in College Station over the Texas A&M Aggies during their historic 38-0 start last season.

It was the biggest shot of the game with 1:23 left in the second overtime.

But, when you think back to that shot by the littlest guy on either roster, it was just a prelude of what was coming from the 5’9" point guard from Marian Catholic High School in Chicago, Illinois.

There’s many reasons why Ulis was not only named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, but the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. He’s a gamer and a flat-out baller, but he makes the big plays in the big moments.

Think back to the 943* three-pointers he's hit with little or no time left on the shot clock this season. A bulk of those have come in or near the outskirts of Derek Willis' home in Bullitt County, which is roughly an hour or so from Rupp Arena in Lexington.

(*This number isn't even relatively close to the actual number, but you get the picture.)

Case and point for Ulis' big-game production: a 30-point, five-assist, three-steal performance against those same Aggies this past weekend in the SEC Tournament title game.

He missed the potential game-winner at the end of regulation on a bad look, but at the beginning of the season, who really thought the ‘Cats would look to Tyler Ulis to stick the dagger in a team? Outside of Tyler Ulis, probably not many with the second coming of Robin Hood, er... I mean Jamal Murray.

There’s no question that Ulis was the best player on the floor Sunday afternoon. The headlines were probably based around Murray’s Aaron Harrison-esque triple that probably smelled like straight onions in Nashville in yet another overtime thriller between the two teams, but the little guy was the one holding the SEC Tournament MVP trophy at the end of the day.

The funny thing about Ulis’ rise to stardom in his sophomore season in Lexington is that he wasn’t even completely on the Kentucky radar for that dynamic class that included Karl-Anthony Towns; the consensus lock for the NBA Rookie of the Year this season. Ulis was seen as Calipari's backup plan with Tyus Jones likely heading to Duke with Jahlil Okafor in a "package deal".

The big fish for Calipari was Emmanuel Mudiay. You know, the starting point guard for the Denver Nuggets right now? He was the target for the ‘Cats in that class before committing to SMU (and then played in China) and would have fit the John Calipari dribble-drive as well as any of the tremendous point guards Calipari has coached over the years.

But, the impact Mudiay would have had on last year’s team for the ages would have paled in comparison to the one Ulis has had on this year’s team.

He committed to Kentucky in September 2013 and this thought from’s Evan Daniels rings just as true then as it does right now.

"You look at him and you think, 'Man, he's a small guard,'" Daniels told the Lexington Herald-Leader, via Ben Roberts. "But what he does and brings to the table ... is going to translate to the next level. He's a guy that you can trust running your basketball team."

Sure, there’s the whole "Well, that team had hockey-like line changes and Willie Cauley-Stein paired with Karl-Anthony Towns in the same frontcourt", which totally wasn’t fair, but is this Kentucky team a sneaky Final Four team this year without Ulis?

Calipari’s latest gem of a floor general fears absolutely nothing. Plus, when you look back to those aforementioned guards that Calipari has coached in the past, most of those guys play like combo guards, outside of say, Marquis Teague. Ulis is the purest lead guard Calipari has coached and it’s not close.

As good as Ulis leads Kentucky offensively – which he does quite well – it's his work at the defensive end that makes a legitimate candidate for the "best point guard in the country" discussion and a legitimate NBA player. 5’9" or not, Ulis can guard anyone on the floor even on a switch with intelligence and quickness.

This year’s NCAA Tournament will probably mark the final days of Tyler Ulis in a Kentucky uniform. He's truly been "the little engine that could" for the 'Cats this season. He’s not the prototypical lottery pick that Calipari has usually had, but he’s going to be an asset for an NBA team in the future.

He’s going to stick somewhere and lord help the first guard that has to play against him.