When Kentucky won Tuesday despite losing point guard/team leader Tyler Ulis late in the first half, South Florida Coach Orlando Antigua suggested the experience could benefit UK in the long run. Freshmen Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe gained valuable experience running the team, which will help should, say, foul trouble or another injury sideline Ulis later this season.
On Sunday, John Calipari fretted about the possibility of too much of this supposedly good thing.
After saying Ulis would not practice Sunday and being non-committal about Ulis playing against Illinois State Monday, Calipari said, “If we’re without Tyler, it’s a difficult game for us.”
While Murray and Briscoe are highly-regarded players in their own right, a blowout victory against an opponent numbers maven Ken Pomeroy ranks as the worst team the Cats will play this season (No. 230) was not a definitive assessment of Kentucky without Ulis.
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We don’t know, if the game is close, who panics.
John Calipari, on playing without Tyler Ulis
Illinois State, which led No. 2 Maryland by five with less than eight minutes left last Tuesday, may better test UK’s freshman point guards.
“We don’t know, if the game is close, who panics,” Calipari said.
When asked if he was confident in Murray and/or Briscoe running the team in Ulis’ absence, Calipari said, “Yeah, I am. But, again, they don’t have the experience (Ulis) has. So you don’t know how they’re going to respond if things get hairy.”
Calipari likened Illinois State to Arkansas. Like the Hogs, the Redbirds use pressure defense which includes springing traps at unusual spots on the floor. Ulis played against Arkansas twice last season. Murray and Briscoe are freshmen.
And Illinois State will spread five players on the perimeter at times and look to beat a defender one-on-one.
“That’s an issue for us,” Calipari said, “because we have a couple guys who have yet to keep a guy in front of them. So (the Redbirds) may find that guy and go after him.”
Of course, Ulis is known for, among many things, being a tenacious on-ball defender.
This was on display against South Florida. Kentucky’s pressure did not immediately wane when Ulis suffered a hyper-extended right elbow with 5:26 left in the first half. Kentucky actually extended its lead from nine to 21 points by halftime. The margin grew to as much as 31 mid-way through the second half.
South Florida steadied down the stretch and reduced the UK lead to less than 20, which prompted Calipari to point out how Ulis can be a merciless defender.
“Tyler just keeps coming and he does not stop,” Calipari said. “He’s not going to make mistakes and let another team get back in a game. That’s the difference, and that’s the experience.”
Calipari did not seem alarmed by Ulis’ injury. He even managed to joke about it. “It might help his shooting,” he quipped, a sly reference to Ulis’ six-for-21 accuracy from three-point range.
I feel, basically, it’s one of my roles on the team: to add pressure to the ball and pick up full-court.
UK’s Dominique Hawkins
Ulis’ injury created an opportunity for Dominique Hawkins, a player who gained a reputation for good defense when he contained Louisville’s Russ Smith and Michigan’s Nik Stauskas in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Of the on-ball defense Ulis contributes, Hawkins said, “I know I can provide that. I feel, basically, it’s one of my roles on the team: to add pressure to the ball and pick up full-court.”
After the South Florida game, Calipari saluted Hawkins’ defensive intensity. That quality is the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball’s ticket to playing time, which Calipari said he conveyed in a recent meeting with Hawkins.
“If you don’t defend, then you have no chance of playing here,” Calipari said he told Hawkins. “Like none.”
Defensive lapses in a recent game may have prompted Calipari’s straight-shooting reminder. He said Hawkins turned his head, letting his man beat him on a pick-and-roll. Hawkins also went under a screen, which allowed his man a chance for an open shot.
“You have no room for that,” Calipari said he told Hawkins.
Illinois State, 3-4, figures to make on-ball defense a challenge. The Redbirds’ Paris Lee is in his third season as point guard. He led the Missouri Valley Conference (and ranked ninth nationally) in steals last season. Through seven games, he’s had 28 assists and only nine turnovers.
Like Ulis, Lee is from Chicago. And as Illinois State Coach Dan Muller described Lee as good with the ball, a “really good defender” and a player with a knack for making the correct play, it sounded a lot like Ulis.
“They’re similar … ,” Muller said. “Both are really good at making the right play.”
Whether both will be on the court Monday remains to be seen.
Illinois State at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Records: Illinois State 3-4; UK 6-0
Radio: WBUL 98.1, WLAP 630