It was a shame John Calipari had to leave so early.
It wasn’t just his team’s 89-62 thrashing of host South Carolina at Colonial Life Arena in a key Southeastern Conference matchup that the Kentucky coach missed seeing first hand. He missed the Cats’ best performance of the entire season.
“Definitely,” said point guard Tyler Ulis.
But if you thought the Cats were playing without a coach after a volcanic eruption earned Calipari two technical fouls and an ejection less than three minutes into Saturday’s showdown, you were greatly mistaken.
And if you assumed Calipari’s presence left the building when the UK coach made the long walk to the visiting locker room, you’d be zero-for-two.
“The story is Coach Cal coached the game through Tyler Ulis,” UK assistant Kenny Payne said.
Or simply: Saturday’s story was Tyler Ulis.
For quite some time now, Calipari has been talking about how his sophomore point guard was a coach on the floor, how Ulis makes suggestions, recommends plays, knows how to get his teammates in the right place at the right time.
Never was that in more evidence than Saturday when Ulis scored 27 points, dished 12 assists, made two steals and, according to Payne, ran the Kentucky offense by himself after Calipari was told to hit the showers.
“I never touched the offense,” said Payne, who took over lead bench duties in Cal’s absence. “Didn’t have to.”
The offense was Ulis’ baby and you would have thought the Chicago native was John Wooden. Kentucky shot 48.4 percent, made 11 of 25 three-pointers, held its own on the boards with the bruising Gamecocks, dished 17 assists compared to just 12 turnovers.
And if Ulis was already the definition of a complete point guard — a floor general who can also score — he was even more so without Calipari.
“I had to,” Ulis said afterward. “The coaching staff gave me the green light to call what I wanted to call. I just tried to get guys in sets and lead the win.”
How important is that?
“I can’t begin to tell you how important that is for any coach, but especially for this team,” Payne said. “He guides the other four guys on the floor with him and makes their game easier.”
We could use the rest of this column to tell you about Ulis’ pinpoint lobs for Marcus Lee’s dunks; or Ulis’ 4-of-8 shooting from three-point range; or how he found Isaiah Briscoe on a cut to the basket for a bucket — Briscoe was about to burst as he headed back up the floor, pointing at Ulis with a huge smile — or how he helped set up Jamal Murray on the way to the freshman’s 26 points.
If you are a fan of Kentucky basketball, or just college basketball, you’ve seen all that before, enough to convince you this kid should be in the conversation for National Player of the Year. So we’re going to let the other team talk about Tyler Ulis.
“I was really impressed, really impressed,” said South Carolina forward Michael Carrera, who led the Gamecocks with 25 points. “When he was a freshman, he was the quiet one. Wow, it’s unbelievable how he has grown and become a great leader for that team.”
“It’s his team now,” South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said. “That’s happened over the course of the year. I don’t think I’ve ever coached against somebody that’s so slight — and I don’t say that in a negative way — in appearance and yet so strong, so durable, so competitive and so good as Tyler Ulis.
“He never comes out of games. He guards the heck out of your point guard. He makes every competitive play. If you ball-screen him, you’re not going to ball-screen him, he’s getting through it. You try to put him in off-the-ball screens, he just knocks your screeners out of the way and gets to where he belongs.
“And then offensively, he never shut up. There’s two minutes left in the game and they’re up 56 or whatever they were up and he’s still telling guys what to do. That’s a point guard. That’s why they did to us what they did today.”
On this day anyway, Kentucky didn’t need John Calipari.
It already had a coach; it had Tyler Ulis.