Tyler Ulis is Not Kentucky’s Prototypical Defensive Game-Changer

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 11th, 2016

Kentucky fans are used to having defensive game-changers. These are usually athletic behemoths like Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns — players who make entry into the paint a house of horrors for their opponents. But there’s another defensive game-changer on campus in Lexington this season, except that he’s over a foot shorter than his predecessors and does most of his defensive dirty work outside the lane. Tyler Ulis‘ control of the offense and Jamal Murray‘s scoring barrage have gotten a lot of well-deserved attention during the last week, but it has been Ulis’ keen ability to disrupt opponents’ offensive game plans that has been just as important. Just ask Florida head coach Mike White.

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

“I thought it started, again, with Ulis,” he said last weekend after a blowout loss in Rupp Arena. “There were three or four plays that we called that were quick-hitting or with some movement in the first half that Tyler just blew up with the pressure on the basketball.” Kentucky followed up that win with another lopsided victory over a Georgia team that might have been playing for its NCAA Tournament life. But in the end, the box score was littered with ugly numbers. The Wildcats held the Bulldogs to a measly 0.76 points per possession and an astonishingly low 25.0% eFG, poor marks even for a team that has struggled to score this season. Ulis was again the main culprit, using his exceptional quickness in a variety of ways to frustrate Georgia.

In the clip below, Ulis beats the bigger, stronger Kenny Gaines to the baseline to force him into an offensive foul. If Gaines had gotten a step on him, his size would have made an and-one very likely. But Ulis doesn’t let the play get to that point because of his awareness and lateral quickness.

The sophomore also made life difficult for J.J. Frazier (0-of-8 FG) and that is especially evident in the next clip. Ulis stops the ball and shuts down a transition opportunity that might have gotten the dangerous scorer going while the Bulldogs were still within reach.

In this final clip, Ulis shows off his fast hands and help side awareness to rotate over and eliminate a chance for Yante Maten at the rim.

This is not a traditional John Calipari team, at least not in the mold we’ve generally come to expect. Skal Labissiere isn’t going to develop into a cold-streak buster like Towns, DeMarcus Cousins or Julius Randle over the next month, and players like Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee at this point in their careers generally are who they are. The Wildcats will as a result rely on some combination of Murray, the occasional burst from Derek Willis, and Ulis’ creativity, to score. This formula has worked well enough to produce the nation’s 14th-best offense, according to KenPom (it is the best in the SEC), but a defense that is capable (KenPom #46) but not exceptional will need to continue improving, anchored by Ulis. The diminutive point guard  may not alter many shots or pluck every miss off the glass, but Ulis’ greatest contribution is as a dynamic game-changer on the defensive end.

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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