Tyler Ulis did not come to Kentucky expecting observers to need a history book to judge his talent.
“Not at all,” he said Tuesday. “I just wanted to come here and prove I could play.”
Validation of how convincingly Ulis proved that he belonged came earlier Tuesday when Southeastern Conference coaches voted him the league’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Size figured in the original modest goal of simply proving he could play, and it put into context how rare his talent is. At 5-foot-9, Ulis is the shortest player to win the awards. (LSU’s Chris Jackson, a 6-footer, won Player of the Year in 1988-89 and 1989-90).
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Ulis joined UK’s Anthony Davis (2011-12) as the only players to win both SEC player and defensive player of year awards.
“I guess it proves I obviously wasn’t too small to play college basketball,” Ulis said with obvious understatement.
You know, it’s either him or you. . . . You have to dominate your position at all times. Coming into a game, that should be your mentality. If each guy on the team does that, it’s a guaranteed win.
Tyler Ulis, on how he takes his matchup personally every game
Ulis was not the only Kentucky player honored Tuesday. Jamal Murray joined him on the coaches’ All-SEC First Team. Murray also made the All-Freshman Team and, if the award existed, he’d very likely be the league’s Perimeter Shooter of the Year.
“It’s an honor,” Murray said. “I’m proud of where I came from and how far it’s taken to get to this point.”
Ulis beat out heralded LSU freshman Ben Simmons for Player of the Year. Simmons made the All-SEC first team and was named Freshman of the Year.
The Defensive Player of the Year award came as a pleasant surprise.
“I honestly didn’t think I was anywhere close to winning that award, at all,” Ulis said. “Defensively, with my size, I have to use my IQ to my advantage. Knowing a team runs a play over and over again, you get used to it and know what they’re running.”
Ulis also pointed out the importance of concentrating during practice and walk-through sessions on the day of a game.
“You just have to pay attention to detail,” he said.
As coaches are apt to stress, Ulis said he takes the challenge of competing against the opposition’s point guard personally.
“You know, it’s either him or you . . . ,” Ulis said. “You have to dominate your position at all times. Coming into a game, that should be your mentality. If each guy on the team does that, it’s a guaranteed win.”
Ulis became the eighth UK player to win the SEC Player of the Year award and the fifth to be voted Defensive Player of the Year. UK players have won the latter now four times in the last five years: Davis in 2012, Nerlens Noel in 2013, Willie Cauley-Stein in 2015 and now Ulis.
As Kentucky noted in a news release, Ulis has been at his best in the biggest games. He’s averaging 22.8 points and 9 assists a game — both team highs — in UK’s five games against ranked opponents.
The United States Basketball Writers Association also voted Ulis as District IV Player of the Year. Murray joined Ulis on the All-District IV team.
Murray leads the SEC in scoring in league games (22.4 ppg). With 619 points, he needs 39 more to pass Brandon Knight as UK’s most prolific freshman scorer.
Murray added a flourish to his scoring last weekend when he followed a swish by making a gesture as if shooting a bow and arrow. Teammate EJ Floreal then acted as if he had been pierced by an arrow.
UK Coach John Calipari pointed out that he’d prefer Murray get back on defense rather than celebrate a made shot. What if his man had answered with a three-pointer at the other end, Calipari asked.
“I would have come down and hit another three,” Murray said.
When asked if Calipari would still be angry, Murray said with a deadpan tone, “That’s fine.”
UK seed range: 3 to 5
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said he believed Kentucky could improve its NCAA Tournament seed from four to three by winning the SEC tourney. A first-game loss on Friday might drop the Cats to a five, he said.
“But I think it’s the most likely they’re going to stay right where they are (a four) unless they win the tournament,” Lunardi said.
As for the rest of the SEC, Lunardi said only UK and Texas A&M should be sure of NCAA Tournament bids.
“I know South Carolina thinks they are a lock,” Lunardi said. “And they probably are, but I think they have kind of a hold-your-nose resume. Same with Vandy; they don’t win on the road. And in the case of South Carolina, they play just a horrible schedule. . . .
“I think they both will get in, but I’m not buying their stock, necessarily.”
Lunardi said he did not think any other SEC team would win the league tournament or get an NCAA Tournament bid.
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
TV: SEC Network (Wednesday through Friday), ESPN (Saturday and Sunday)
Kentucky’s opening game: UK plays the winner of Thursday’s Alabama-Mississippi game in the quarterfinals at 7 p.m. EST Friday.