UK Recruiting

UK basketball signee Ulis on his size: 'I think I've proven enough'

Marian Catholic player and Kentucky signee Tyler Ulis wowed fans with his pinpoint passing during Mustang Madness in Paducah.
Marian Catholic player and Kentucky signee Tyler Ulis wowed fans with his pinpoint passing during Mustang Madness in Paducah. Chicago Tribune

To question whether Tyler Ulis can be an effective point guard at the college level is to have never seen him with a basketball in his hands.

Skeptics abounded when Ulis committed to and then signed with the University of Kentucky last fall. Fans took a look at his online recruiting profiles and saw a diminutive player — 5-8 or 5-9 — who wasn't nearly as big or ranked nearly as high as the point guards that John Calipari had brought to Lexington in the past.

If anyone came to Mustang Madness in Paducah on Saturday night with the idea that Ulis couldn't cut it as UK's point guard of the future, those concerns were surely alleviated by the time everybody hit the parking lot.

Ulis — playing with a layer of tape around his sprained right wrist — scored 14 points, dished out 10 assists, committed only one turnover and came up with six steals despite playing just 21 minutes in an 80-63 rout of Lausanne Collegiate (Tenn.).

James Ulis watched his son from the stands, and listened to the fans exclaim at every one of his dazzling passes that seemed to always end up in the perfect spot.

"Yeah, I do think people underestimate him," he told the Herald-Leader afterward. "People talk about his size all the time. But his size never comes into play during games. You watched that game — there were kids bigger and stronger and taller. And his size didn't come into play at all."

Marian Catholic is ranked as the No. 2 team in the basketball-rich Chicago area, but Ulis and company don't play in any of the made-for-ESPN games.

That means few UK fans have actually seen him, so it's natural to wonder if a player that small — there haven't been many like him in the program's history — can carry a team with perennial dreams of winning a national title.

Ulis never bristles at the questions about his height. He only asks that people keep an open mind.

"A lot of people try to knock me for my size, saying I'm too little to play at the next level," he said. "So once they see me play, hopefully, they change their mind.

"A lot of people are seeing me for the first time and seeing what I'm bringing to the table."

Ulis said that — once they see him — "the fans are usually wowed by my passes, a lot of oohs and ahhs."

There was one sequence Saturday night when Ulis saved a loose ball from going out of bounds, switching the ball from one hand to another while simultaneously tip-toeing down the sideline to make sure he didn't go out of bounds himself. He then darted down the court, around a couple of defenders and made a perfectly placed pass over a taller opponent and right into the hands of a teammate who was waiting near the basket.

The teammate missed the open layup, but it was one of the most impressive plays Ulis made all night.

Next season, the recipient of those passes will be players like Karl Towns Jr. or Trey Lyles or one of the current UK big men expected to return for another run.

Ulis is quick to praise his high school teammates, but he's also looking forward to the opportunities to come.

"That's going to be great," he said. "I haven't played with anybody that big or as great a player as Devin (Booker). He's the best shooter in the country. Karl and Trey are two of the best post players in the country. ... That's going to be a fun experience."

Ulis is already getting a little taste of what it's going to be like next season. After Saturday's game, he was surrounded by autograph seekers and fans wanting a picture with him — mostly kids, some adults — and he signed and posed for every one.

His father was among those standing off to the side, beaming with pride.

"It's a proud moment," James Ulis said. "Because, obviously, basketball is his passion and he's put a lot of work into it. When fans clap for you or kids are there waiting in line to get your autograph, it means they appreciate what you bring to the table.

"Obviously, the people here have a passion for basketball. Unless you've been under a rock or something, you know how passionate Kentucky fans are about their basketball."

Ulis is getting the same treatment from opponents, who are eager to give the UK signee their best shot. He was in the same position just a few months ago.

"Everybody has a target on my back right now," he said. "I had the target on everybody else's back going through the summer.

"I feel like I proved myself enough that I really don't have to do much proving because I'm signed to college, and that's all that really matters at this point. Coach Cal is one of the greatest coaches ever. Kentucky is the greatest basketball program right now, so I think I've proven enough."