UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Tyler Ulis dares you to call him too small

Tyler Ulis during UK basketball practice on Thursday October 16, 2014  in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Tyler Ulis during UK basketball practice on Thursday October 16, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Using a round number, Tyler Ulis can tell you how many times he's been told he's too small to thrive in basketball.

"A couple of million," he said, smiling.

Kentucky's freshman point guard can also tell you exactly how long he's been self-motivating off such talk.

"All my life," he said Thursday at UK's annual men's basketball Media Day. "I've been motivated off that all my life."

In 2014-15, the University of Kentucky will field one of the tallest men's basketball teams in college hoops history. The Wildcats boast six players listed at 6-foot-9 or taller, 10 players who are 6-6 or more.

Yet when John Calipari's team played six exhibition games in the Bahamas this past summer against pro teams from foreign countries, the UK player who ginned up the most buzz was Ulis.

All 5-foot-9 (maybe) of him.

Splitting the point guard duties with incumbent Kentucky starter Andrew Harrison in Calipari's new-fangled, two-platoon system, Ulis put some wow into the Bahamas. He hit nine of 15 three-pointers, averaged 7.7 points and four assists and was a harrying, full-court defensive presence.

"From the fans' standpoint, it benefited me," Ulis said of the Bahamas tour. "They could see me play for once and (now) they don't think I'm too small."

Though Ulis became a McDonald's All-American (he averaged 23.8 points and 6.8 assists as a senior) playing for Marian Catholic High School in suburban Chicago, he grew up in Lima, Ohio.

One of his childhood friends was Darius West, Mark Stoops' prized, four-star safety recruit from Lima who is redshirting this season at Kentucky due to leg injuries.

"We grew up together," Ulis said of West. "He stayed at my house all the time. We played football together, basketball together. I've known him since, I think, I was 5 years old."

UK freshman shooting guard Devin Booker is another familiar face for Ulis in Lexington. The two met in a basketball camp before they started high school.

"Eighth grade. Elite 100 Camp," Booker said. "We were on the same team. We ended up winning the championship. We went undefeated. That's where I fell in love with his game. He helped me out so much on the court. He made everything easy."

By middle school, Ulis said he had long-since recognized that he had to get by on quickness, guile and court vision if he wanted to succeed in basketball at his size.

"When I was really young, I scored a lot," Ulis said. "But as (other) guys got bigger and taller, I had to adjust my game. So that's what I did. I became a pass-first point guard."

With Kentucky's roster stocked with nine McDonald's All-Americans and boasting at least 12 players good enough to play, Calipari is talking about staying with the platoon system he used in the Bahamas.

If he follows through, the Kentucky coach would seem to have the perfect point guard complements in Andrew Harrison and Ulis.

In a sense, practicing against each other this winter gives both guards a chance to shore up their perceived weaknesses. For the 6-6 Harrison, the concern is that he struggles against smaller, quicker guards. Conversely, with Ulis, the fear is he will not be able to defend bigger, more physical players.

"I feel like we are both making each other better," Harrison said. "(Ulis) is definitely a pest. He puts pressure on the ball constantly."

Ulis says Calipari told him, "I have to get stronger, to start doing pushups at night. ... I am (already) a lot stronger. I feel it on the court playing against Andrew. He is not pushing me around as much as he was when I first got here."

Having a guard as small as Ulis is a departure for Calipari, whose multi-school line of stellar lead guards has included the 6-3 Derrick Rose, the 6-6 Tyreke Evans, the 6-4 John Wall and the 6-3 Brandon Knight.

"I try not to look at that," Ulis said. "I'm not trying to break into that group. ... They were great players, but they were also completely different kind of players than I am. They were big guards. I'm a small guard."

Ulis sounds just fine if you want to continue to fill his motivational tank by telling him he's too small to succeed as a big-time college point guard.

"I've always believed I could play at this level, ever since I was young," he said. "But everybody said I was too small. Well, I never bought into that stuff. I just kept working. I'm here now. And I'm not going to stop."

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