UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: As Ulis proves, size no big deal when assessing point guards

Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis, right, led the break in the first half against Vanderbilt on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Rupp Arena.
Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis, right, led the break in the first half against Vanderbilt on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Rupp Arena.

Let’s begin with a multiple choice question. Tyler Ulis is one of 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award:

Despite being 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds?

Because he’s 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds?

For reasons that have nothing to do with being 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds?

The search for the answer involved a call to Bob Cousy, the Hall of Famer for whom the award that goes to college basketball’s best point guard is named.

The Cooz, who played for the Boston Celtics, was basketball’s consummate point guard in the 1950s and early 1960s. At 87, he doesn’t follow basketball, pro or college, closely. Alas, he had not seen Ulis play. But Cousy knows what it takes to be a top point guard, and what is irrelevant.

“Despite the fact that basketball over the years is associated with tall people, for obvious reasons, I’ve always said that size is not what separates the men from the boys,” he said. “It’s speed and quickness.”

Of course, size is an asset when coupled with speed and quickness. Cousy cited Magic Johnson, a 6-9 point guard who could look over defenses. This is not so much an advantage, Cousy said, as “just an option you don’t have if you’re 5-9.”

In judging point guards, Cousy looks at speed and quickness. But those are not the only factors that separate the men from the boys.

“Creativity,” Cousy said. “Imagination. How he sees the floor.”

When asked if this creativity and imagination can be instilled in a player, Cousy answered quickly.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it’s pretty innate. I think it is instinctive.”

No one disputes Ulis’ ability to make plays and improvise. After last weekend’s game, Kansas Coach Bill Self said the Jayhawks hoped to take their chances by leaving Ulis relatively free on the perimeter to shoot three-pointers.

“Because he’s got the best in-between game of anybody around,” Self said.

As the Kansas coach saw it, his team’s lack of a rim protector created greater opportunity for Ulis to penetrate the defense and then create for others and himself.

“He creates three feet of separation, it’s money,” Self said. “He’s as good as we’ve played against. He was great.”

It seems logical that Ulis’ lack of size would put doubt in his teammates’ minds, at least initially, that he could take a prominent role. Not so, Marcus Lee said.

“Oh, no chance,” Lee said, “because the first time I met him he tried to fight DeMarcus Cousins, the biggest person I ever met.”

That was the famous pickup game in which Ulis, then a UK signee, refused to defer to Cousins, who was a foot taller, 100 pounds heavier and an NBA veteran.

The thought of Ulis not being big enough, literally and figuratively, “went out the window real quick,” Lee said.

Cousy also scoffed at the widely held notion that the best point guards must be unselfish basketball servants.

“Everyone used to say, ‘Boy, are you unselfish,’” he said. “Hell, I wasn’t unselfish. I took great pride in my creative skills. And after all that wonderful stuff, if I gave it to the guy just at the time to shoot, if he blew the layup, (laughs), he would hear from me.

“I wanted a successful conclusion to this piece of art that I created. So there’s ego involved.”

Last week’s announcement of the 10 finalists for the Cousy Award show that size is not a prerequisite. Along with Ulis, two other finalists are 5-9: Nic Moore of SMU and Khalil Felder of Oakland.

‘Napoleon complex’

On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics would be playing in the NBA All-Star Game.

Of all the players in NBA history, only 23 were 5-9 or shorter, The Times reported. And only 11 played in 100 or more games.

Thomas, who was averaging 21.5 points and 6.6 assists going into last week’s games, and Calvin Murphy are the shortest NBA All-Stars ever. Both are 5-9.

“I had a chip on my shoulder, a Napoleon complex,” Murphy told The Times, “and I was coming at you.”

UK-Kansas series?

The Kentucky-Kansas game came and went without proper tribute paid to the site. Nowadays, when two college basketball blue bloods play, the game is at a neutral site.

Part of the UK-KU charm was that the game was played on a team’s home court. The enthusiastic crowd in an iconic arena inevitably led to talk of a revived home-and-home series between Kentucky and Kansas.

“I’d love to do that,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said. But he added conditions.

Both programs typically play top-notch schedules, he said. So both would need to replace an existing slot reserved for a marquee opponent rather than simply add another heavyweight opponent.

“We’d have to adjust some things,” Self said. “Cal (John Calipari) would have to do the game thing in order to play a game like that every year. But I think there’s something about it that brings so much.”

Kansas’ Super Bowl?

UK partisans like to say a game against the Cats is every opponent’s Super Bowl. So did Kansas view last weekend’s game as its Super Bowl? Or was the charged atmosphere inside Allen Fieldhouse simply basketball business as usual?

“No, it was better,” KU Coach Bill Self said. But, he added, the atmosphere was not as good as the recent Kansas-Oklahoma game, which had more crowd-pleasing plays.

Nor did the Kansas-Kentucky game have the conference rivalry component and the long-term consequences that go with Kansas seeking to win a 12th straight Big 12 Conference title.

“It was almost a freebee,” Self said of the Kansas-Kentucky game. “Like you’re playing an exhibition game because it didn’t mean anything in the big picture except for momentum and seeding and intangible things.”

‘It’s a roster thing’

If and when John Calipari’s name gets mentioned for an NBA coaching job, here’s the first step UK fans should take to judge how seriously to take the speculation: Find out how good the players are.

The better the players, the more Calipari might be tempted to return to the NBA.

At least, he gave that impression when asked about Billy Donovan leaving Florida for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“He took over a team with a good roster. …,” Calipari said. “If you have a good roster, they are good jobs. If you have a crappy roster, you must change the roster. The NBA is about roster. I don’t think any of these guys, including Fred (Hoiberg), would get an opportunity in the NBA to coach if they can’t coach. They can coach. What does your roster look like?”

Calipari said he told Donovan pretty much the same thing.

“I said, as long as you’re healthy, Billy, you’re fine,” he said, meaning the players were good and healthy. “If you’re not healthy, run for the hills. It’s a roster thing. The NBA is about the roster thing.”

Signing day

Last week’s football signing day provided further evidence of the increasing influence of show biz in athletics. Michigan took the routine business of signing prospects and gave it razzle-dazzle.

Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh staged a show in an on-campus auditorium that attracted a capacity crowd.

Guest stars included Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, iconic professional wrestler Ric Flair, Lou Holtz and Mike Shanahan. And if he counts as a celebrity, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay also attended.

Harbaugh made no secret of his wish to inject excitement into signing day. Coincidentally, he borrowed from the always excitable Dick Vitale in making this point.

“I’ve been watching this process for a few years myself, and the coach pulls a fax out of the machine and stands up and talks about the player and usually says kind of the same thing,” he said. “I wanted to do something awesome. It was awesome with a capital ‘A.’ ”

Bob Wojnowski, a columnist with The Detroit News, wrote about the show serving multiple purposes.

“It capped a stellar recruiting season, with Michigan landing a group likely ranked in the top six in the country,” he wrote, “and also raised money for the Chad Tough Foundation to fight pediatric brain tumors. And of course, it trained a bright spotlight on a program shaking off nearly a decade of doldrums.”


Last week also gave us another reason to temper our interest in the rating of prospects. One star to five stars, it’s only a sense of how good a prospect is compared to other prospects at a given point in time. Its reliability as a way to tell how good a player will be in the future can be, well, unreliable.

Robert Hubbs III was a five-star prospect from a small school in western Tennessee. He signed with Tennessee amid much fanfare.

Going into Tuesday’s game against Kentucky, Hobbs missed all 14 of his three-point shots in the previous 11 games. He had made six of 35 three-point shots on the season (17.1 percent). He did not take a three-point shot against UK.

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes has said that Hubbs might be the most athletic player on the team. Hubbs scored all eight of his points against UK in the final 9:39.

Barnes said the Vols looked to Hubbs for offense late to give teammate Kevin Punter a break and to make Jamal Murray defend.

Hard to believe

Hall of Famer Bob Cousy found it hard to believe Wisconsin beat Kentucky in the Final Four last year.

“I thought there should have been an investigation last year when they lost,” he said of the Cats. “I mean, they were so much better than anyone else.

“This year, that’s not the case.”

Happy birthday

To Tai Wynyard. He turned 18 on Friday. … To Ramel Bradley. He turned 31 on Friday. … To Henry Thomas. He turns 45 on Monday. … To Winston Bennett. He turns 51 on Tuesday. …To John Calipari. He turns 57 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton