UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Ulis’ season best by UK point guard in Rupp Arena era

John Wall is the most physically-gifted point guard to play at Kentucky in my lifetime.

Taking into account Kyle Macy’s full three years at UK after he transferred from Purdue, I would still weight Macy’s as the best point guard career at Kentucky.

But since Rupp Arena opened in 1976, has any Wildcats point guard ever had a better overall season than the one Tyler Ulis is putting in the books?

The answer is no.

On Senior Day for Alex Poythress, Ulis put the cap on a stellar regular season by dominating visiting LSU even though he shot only 5-of-16.

With the 5-foot-9 Ulis controlling the game through his court vision and decision-making, Kentucky avenged its 18-point loss at LSU Jan. 5 with a 94-77 pasting of the Tigers before a giddy Rupp crowd of 24,414.

The win allowed No. 22 UK (23-8, 13-5 SEC) to claim a share of its 47th Southeastern Conference regular-season title with Texas A&M. By virtue of its overtime victory over the Wildcats in College Station last month, the Aggies will be the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament.

Masterfully operating off high-ball screens in Kentucky’s pick-and-roll attack, Ulis finished with 14 points, 14 assists and one turnover.

“If there's a better point guard in the country, you gotta show me who he is,” UK Coach John Calipari said .

The full mastery of Kentucky’s fiery little sophomore was most on display during what proved to be the game’s deciding stretch late in the first half. LSU (18-13, 11-7) was leading 19-18 when Ulis took over the game.

First, he set up the resurgent Skal Labissiere (18 points, nine rebounds, six blocked shots) for a 15-footer jumper which the big man swished with 8:31 left.

Next trip, Ulis made the same read and got Skal the same look for another deuce (8:00). Ensuing possession, Ulis found Marcus Lee (12 points, 10 rebounds) for a dunk (7:20).

Trying something different, LSU left Ulis open off a high pick-and-roll and he buried a 15-footer himself (6:42). Finally, on the next two trips, Ulis hit Lee for a pair of dunks (6:11 and 5:35).

Just like that, Kentucky was up 30-21 and on its way to a big victory.

“Coach Cal wanted me to shoot the ball a lot but I was seeing guys were feeling it,” Ulis said. “Skal was hot. Marcus was rolling (to the basket after setting picks) hard.”

In Ulis and LSU freshman star Ben Simmons, Saturday’s game featured the two players most often mentioned as the leading contenders for SEC Player of the Year.

Simmons had a busy stat line, too — 17 points, 11 rebounds, seven steals, six turnovers, four assists.

Asked afterward if Ulis was the best guard LSU had faced this year, Simmons said no.

“Probably Moody,” Simmons said of Mississippi star Stefan Moody. “Moody, he’s shooting the ball from off the court. You can’t do anything about that.”

Simmons allowed that Ulis is “a great player,” too.

Asked what makes the UK guard good, the LSU star said “if you touch him, it’s a foul. He’s crafty. He’s got a lot of ball fakes, can shoot the ball from outside. He’s quick. Once he gets in the lane, you don’t want to jump, otherwise he’s going to get into your body or dish it to one of their bigs.”

For the season, Ulis is averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 assists.

In his one-and-done season (2009-10) at UK, Wall averaged 16.6 and 6.5. Over his three seasons (1977-80) at Kentucky, Macy — who played before the three-point line — never averaged more than 15.4 points (1979-80) or 5.6 assists (1977-78).

“You know, you're talking about a player of the year candidate nationally,” Calipari said of Ulis. “I told the team after, he's made their job easy. He's built confidence in big guys and now he's letting them play, and he makes my job easier because he's coaching that team on the floor.”

Afterward, Ulis talked about how meaningful the final game in Rupp was for Poythress (12 points), UK’s sole senior.

“Very special,” Ulis said. “This arena, it’s crazy. Playing here the last time, it’s something to think about. You’re going to miss it.”

It is increasingly accepted that Ulis is likely to enter the 2016 NBA draft. So was Saturday his last game in Rupp, too?

“I don’t know,” Ulis said. “I don’t know at all.”

If it was, Tyler Ulis went out having set the single-season bar for Kentucky point guard play as high as it’s ever been in Rupp Arena.

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