John Clay

John Clay: Tyler Ulis is not your typical defensive player of the year

Tyler Ulis is annoying. Man, is that little guy annoying. He’s a pest. He’s always hanging around. He’s always bugging you. He’s always taking things. He’s always in your face. He can be so frustrating, at least to the man he is guarding.

“He’s so small, you think you can kind of shove him out of the way,” teammate Jamal Murray said Tuesday. “It doesn’t work that way.”

It doesn’t work that way, which is why on Tuesday the SEC announced Ulis was its defensive player of the year.

“That’s the award I like the most,” Ulis said.

If that implies the Kentucky point guard won multiple conference awards on Tuesday, that’s because he did. The Chicago product also took home the big hardware, selected as the player of the year in a vote of the league’s coaches.

Player of the year is a big deal. It’s not just scorer of the year or rebounder of the year or assist man of the year. It’s all of the above and then some — leadership, adding value to your team, setting a good example, getting things done in the clutch. Ulis checks all those boxes.

Here’s the thing, however. He stands just 5-foot-9. Maybe. His listed weight is 160 pounds. You don’t think of 5-9, 160-pounders as being defensive demons. They’re too short, too light. When you think of defensive-player-of-the-year types, you think of 7-foot shot blockers or shut-down swing types with long wingspans.

You don’t think Ulis.

“I take pride in my defense,” Ulis said. “I don’t like being scored on.”

It starts there. Pride is a prominent ingredient when it comes to defense. It takes hard work. It takes footwork and concentration and a fair amount of sweat. You have to want to play defense. That’s the reason not every player is a good defensive player.

All of that is especially true for someone Ulis’ size. He’s not going to smother an opponent with his physique or block a shot with his long arms. His success his built on his quickness and his ability to anticipate.

“I just try to be disruptive on the ball, the point guard, full court,” Ulis said. “I just try to keep them from getting in their offense and make everything hard.”

Murray can attest to that. Also a first-team All-SEC selection by the coaches on Tuesday, Murray has faced Ulis plenty of times in practice. It’s not pleasant.

“Full-court pressure is the worst,” Murray said. “He’s a pest. He’s a pest on defense. He frustrates a lot of teams and the opposing player.”

Rim-protectors are important, of course. Skal Labissiere’s six blocked shots last Saturday against LSU, to go along with Marcus Lee’s swatting ability, gives UK fans hope of more defensive pressure around the goal.

For this particular UK team, however, it starts away from the goal with on-the-ball pressure, an art Ulis has mastered. It’s impossible to run your offense when you can’t get into your offense.

“Everywhere you turn, he’s right there,” Murray said. “He’s quick and uses his size well. A lot of people underrate his strength. He’s not afraid.”

Oh no, he’s not afraid.

“I’ve watched film of our games and I look at myself like, ‘You must be annoying,’” Ulis said with a smile. “I just harass the man defensively.”

On offense, Ulis lamented Tuesday that he has not shot the ball well of late. Over his last four games, Ulis has made just 20 of 59 shots from the field, including three of 18 three-pointers.

“I feel like I need to do a lot better job for my team,” he said.

Fact of the matter, Ulis has done it all for his team, an iron man with impeccable leadership qualities, voted the best defender in his league.

“I didn’t really know if people noticed the defense I played,” he said. “It was a surprise to me that I won that award. I’m happy I have it.”

They noticed, his opponents and their coaches.

SEC defensive players of the year

2015-16 Tyler Ulis, Kentucky

2014-15 Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

2013-14 Patric Young, Florida

2012-13 Nerlens Noel, Kentucky

2011-12 Anthony Davis, Kentucky

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