John Clay

John Clay: Are the minutes catching up with Kentucky basketball’s Tyler Ulis?

Tyler Ulis has played 1,029 minutes this long college basketball season, averaging 36.8 minutes per game, squeezing everything he can from a team that needs everything he has.

Saturday, however, as Kentucky lost 74-62 to Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym, you caught yourself wondering as February fades into March if the workload is starting to take its toll.

Not that Ulis cost the Cats’ a Music City victory, mind you. The blame game centered on a Kentucky front court that wilted in the face of the surging Commodores trying to fight their way into the NCAA Tournament.

And yet, there was also this:

“Tyler had a tough one; he couldn’t make a shot,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. “How are we going to win if he’s not (making shots)? That’s the first dud he’s had. I say dud and he had six assists and one turnover.”

Ulis made just five of his 20 shots. He missed all seven of his three-point attempts. An 85 percent free-throw shooter, he missed two of four. Shots Ulis usually makes hit the front of the rim or bounced off the back. Drives to the basket that usually end with how-did-he-do-that ended with how-did-he-miss-that.

A hiccup? Perhaps. After all, there’s not a point guard in the nation that has been more valuable to his team than the 5-foot-9 sophomore. Forget the SEC Player of the Year debate. Case closed. Put Ulis on the National Player of the Year ballot.

Over his last four games, however, Ulis has made just 20 of 60 shots for 33 percent. The last two games, he’s 10-for-33 from the floor and 0-for-10 from three-point range. On Feb. 18 against Tennessee, he made three of 15 shots. In Tuesday’s win over Alabama, Ulis was 5-for-13.

True, his assist totals continue to be high. Before Saturday, Ulis had double-digit assists in four of his previous six games. He’s turned the ball over just three times in the last three games.

Still, this late in the year, you wonder about all that floor time. Six games this year Ulis has played every minute. He’s played 39-or-more — including Saturday — in 11 games; 38-or-more in 17; 37-or-more in 18.

Kenny “Sky” Walker was considered the modern “Iron Man” of Kentucky basketball, averaging 36.7 minutes during UK’s 1984-85 season. Ulis has now passed Sky. After Saturday, he’s at 36.8.

“I went in to talk to the guys about practice,” Calipari said Saturday when asked about Ulis’ minutes. “I was trying to back him off of practice. He said, ‘Don’t do that’ because I did it for a couple of days. He said, ‘It’ll screw me up. Let’s go. Let’s go up and down.’”

Calipari is the boss. He should know when a player needs a break. But you can hardly blame a coach for wanting his most valuable player on the floor.

“This game I could have subbed him at some different points,” Calipari said Saturday, “but we could never get a gap and I didn’t feel comfortable with who I had in the game. So I was just trying to get out of there.”

Getting a win out of Saturday was not to be. Down 58-56 with 9:59 left, UK scored one field goal the rest of the way.

“This week we got two games, then the regular season is over and then we’ve got some time and we go into the tournament,” Calipari said of Ulis. “He’s fine. He had a bad shooting night. He’s had bad shooting nights, just not that bad.”

To borrow another Calipari favorite, these players aren’t machines. It’s been a long, hard season and Tyler Ulis has played some long, hard and mostly brilliant minutes.

Does he have enough left in the tank for the March push? Kentucky’s going to need it.

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