John Clay

John Clay: Not to be repetitive, but Kentucky basketball has some really good guards

Some facts just bear repeating.

“We’ve got really good guards,” Coach John Calipari said Tuesday night after Kentucky dominated Alabama 78-53. “Like we have really, really good guards.”

How good?

Tyler Ulis “is a pro,” said Alabama Coach Avery Johnson, who knows a thing or two about that considering he (a) played in the pros and (b) coached in the pros.

In the final push toward deciding the regular-season SEC champion and, more importantly, polishing rough edges in advance of the NCAA Tournament, we spend so much time centering on what a team doesn’t have or what it needs to have come March, we don’t spend enough time praising what it does have in the way of strengths.

Kentucky’s strength is its guards, especially its tandem of sophomore Tyler Ulis and freshman Jamal Murray. If there is a better pure point guard in America than Ulis, nearly all of UK’s opposing coaches have failed to see it. And now, with three games left in the regular season, you can make a strong argument that there are not too many shooting guards better than Murray.

Ulis scored 19 points and dished 10 assists Tuesday for his sixth double-double of the season, the fifth in which that double-double included points and assists. It was the fifth time in the past six games in which Ulis was credited with double-digit assists, breaking the school record of four shared by Kyle Macy (1977-78), Roger Harden (1985-86) and John Wall (2009-10).

“He can play on the professional level,” Johnson said. “He’s probably better than a lot of guys that are now. He’s good, man. He can do everything.”

Johnson said that when he played in the NBA he played against sub-6-foot players like Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues.

“He’s much better than those guys offensively,” Johnson said of Ulis. “He’s a pure point guard that can hold his own. He takes charges. He throws his body. What does he weigh, 160 maybe, wet? He throws his body in there. As a coach, you don’t like coaching against him. But I see a lot of the things I did as a player, I see it in him. He’s probably going to have a long (NBA) career.”

Meanwhile, in his post-game radio show, Calipari said UK would have a new point guard next year.

Then there’s Murray, who finished with 23 points, hitting seven of 14 shots, including two-of-five threes. He missed just one of eight free throws. It was the seventh game in a row in which Murray has scored 20 points, the longest such streak by a Cat since Jodie Meeks had a run of nine 20-point games in 2008-09. It was the 28th game in which Murray has made at least one three-pointer. It just so happens that Tuesday was his 28th collegiate game. That’s a school record.

Early in the season, Murray had to learn to play without the basketball. He was used to being a point guard, to creating his shots off the dribble, to having the ball in his hand. It was a process. It took some time. Now, Murray has that part down.

“He’s completely different,” said Ulis. “He’s catching and shooting. He’s getting by guys. He’s doing what coach wants him to do. He’s not turning the ball over, which is one of the reasons why we only had four turnovers tonight. He’s just playing at a very high level.”

“I mean how much better is he?” Calipari said. “Oh my gosh, he’s not even the same player. His shot selection; he’s not turning it over; he’s defending better; he’s getting by people; he’s drawing fouls. He’s that big guard that he can be.”

We shouldn’t slight Isaiah Briscoe, who has given the Cats grit, energy and intangibles. On this team, with these guards, Briscoe doesn’t have to score. He just has to penetrate, move the ball, defend and snare rebounds, all of which he does.

“Look, we can shoot the ball well and so some stuff. We can create havoc for people,” Calipari said. “But the biggest thing is if you defend and rebound, we got a chance to win every game you play. If your guards are really good, you really have a chance to win any game you play.”

And, as the head coach said, Kentucky has really, really good guards.

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