UK Men's Basketball

Calipari: Kentucky’s trio of star guards needs to be a quartet

Kentucky's Tyler Ulis, left, passes around Vanderbilt's Luke Kornet during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky's Tyler Ulis, left, passes around Vanderbilt's Luke Kornet during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Lexington, Ky. AP

Tyler Ulis is on pace to average more minutes than any Kentucky player in more than 30 years. Because this might be too much of a good thing, UK coaches are trying to devise a way to rest Ulis.

“He and I met on it yesterday,” UK Coach John Calipari said Monday.

The meeting came a day after Kentucky’s overtime loss at Kansas. Ulis played well Saturday, but he played all 45 minutes. Coincidentally or not, he committed a turnover on UK’s final possession of regulation and then another in overtime with the Cats down three.

“I tried to take him out a couple times,” Calipari said. “And he’s begging me to leave him in.”

Of course, Ulis has built up a storehouse of benefit-of-the-doubt. So rather than defy the star point guard, Calipari talked about setting up a four-guard rotation that makes rest for Ulis and UK’s other perimeter stars a matter of routine rather than a decision that can be debated.

Ulis is averaging 36.3 minutes per game. That is the most by any Southeastern Conference player this season, and the most by any UK player since Kenny Walker logged an average of 36.7 minutes per game in the 1984-85 season.

“He definitely needs a break,” UK assistant coach Kenny Payne said of Ulis. “And he’s been great fighting through, trying to help us win a game. To this point, it’s been unbelievable what he’s done.”

It’s a bittersweet memory. You’re proud to be on the floor that much. But it’s taxing and demanding.

Kenny Walker, on being Mr. Indispensable for UK in the 1984-85 season

Ideally, a player should average between 30 and 33 minutes a game, Payne said. Like Ulis, Jamal Murray (34.3) is outside that range. Only nine UK players since 1981-82 have averaged more minutes than Murray.

Isaiah Briscoe is averaging 32 minutes.

And the workload is increasing for each of UK’s three tenors. Ulis is averaging 36.3 minutes overall, 36.8 minutes per SEC game and 37.2 minutes in the last five games. Murray’s playing time is 34.3 overall, 35.5 in the SEC and 36.2 in the last five. Briscoe’s averages 32.0, 33.2 and 33.4, respectively.

Two Kentuckians, Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, were mentioned as possible fourth men in a backcourt rotation.

Hawkins, the former Mr. Basketball, played 15 minutes at Kansas. That was his first action since suffering a high ankle sprain on Jan. 2.

“(UK) definitely needs another guy because they can’t go and play all 40 minutes,” he said. “If they could, that would be, like, non-human.”

Willis, while not considered a guard, leads UK in three-point shooting accuracy (41 percent). That kind of shooting makes defenses react as if he was a guard.

Willis, too, saw a need for backcourt relief. Ulis played “stupid minutes” at Kansas, he said, meaning an ill-advised amount of minutes. He reminded reporters that Briscoe crumpled to the floor at Kansas because of muscle cramps, incidentally a condition that Walker had to deal with in 1984-85.

Willis said he was already preparing for guard duty, the primary difference coming on the defensive end. Quicker, more athletic “3-men” are “a little harder to stay in front of,” he said.

Ulis’ size – 5-foot-9, 160 pounds – gives Calipari pause. “It’s not normal,” he said.

Walker agreed. “It’s absolutely unbelievable,” he said of Ulis’ stamina.

Then again, it’s routine for Calipari. This is the sixth UK team in his seven seasons as coach that has had three players averaging more than 30 minutes. The exception was last season, when UK used a well-documented platoon system of substitution.

Calipari noted another example: his UMass team of 1995-96. “Two guards averaged 39 minutes,” he said. Actually, Edgar Padilla averaged 36.5 minutes and Carmelo Travieso averaged 35.8. But all five starters on that Final Four team averaged more than 30 minutes.

“It’s a bittersweet memory,” Walker said of being Mr. Indispensable for UK in the 1984-85 season. “You’re proud to be on the floor that much. But it’s taxing and demanding.”

Opinion differs on whether the point guard position is more physically and/or mentally demanding, thus creating a greater need to rest.

Mississippi star Stefan Moody, who ranks second among SEC players in playing time (34.8 per game), moved from shooting guard to point guard this season. The Rebels’ coach, Andy Kennedy, said the position switch helped Moody play more minutes.

“I think it’s less strenuous,” he said of playing point guard, “because he has the ball. He doesn’t have to work as hard to get it. I honestly think it helped (lighten) his workload.”

Ironically, making the point guard role exhausting is central to Kentucky’s formula for winning this season. Hence, the need to keep Ulis, Murray and Briscoe playing at a high level.

“The key to our success is ball pressure,” Payne said. “Forty minutes of really pressuring the ball. Dictating the pace.

“So for those three guards, it’s taxing. Very taxing.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton


No. 20 Kentucky at Tennessee

When: 7 p.m.

Records: UK 16-5 (6-2 SEC); Tennessee 10-11 (3-5)

Series: UK leads 151-67

Last meeting: UK won 66-48 on Feb. 17, 2015, at Knoxville

TV/radio: ESPN; WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

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