Meet the Wildcats: Tough-minded Ulis turning his lack of size into a strength

A new season brings new players and new stories to tell. Over the next several weeks, CoachCal.com will be profiling Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with video. Next in the series is Tyler Ulis, who is quickly becoming a fan favorite with his pestering defense and relentless hustle.

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nless you’re a UFC fighter, Shaquille O’Neal or just someone asking for a bad day, picking a fight with DeMarcus Cousins seems like a terrible idea for anyone.

At 6-foot-11, 270 pounds, there are few players in the NBA more menacing than the former Kentucky Wildcat. His size, let alone how he uses it, can be downright frightening.

“DeMarcus Cousins is a big kid,” Marcus Lee said it best. “I wouldn’t do nothing stupid like that.”

Bio Blast

Position: Guard
Date of birth: Jan. 5, 1996
Parents: James Ulis
Hometown: Lima, Ohio
High school:  Marian Catholic High School (Chicago)
Nickname: None
Twitter: @TUlis3
Instagram: @t_ulis3
Favorite TV show: Martin
Favorite food: Pancakes
Favorite superhero: Batman
Favorite player: Allen Iverson
Favorite hobby outside of basketball: Sleeping
Favorite movie: Paid in Full
Favorite artist: Drake

Nobody told Tyler Ulis that last summer when was playing in a pick-up game during a recruiting visit on campus.

Whether he was trying to make an impression with his future teammates, wanted to make a point about his frame, or just didn’t care that Cousins was twice his size and could conceivably squash him if he wanted to, Ulis not only failed to stay out of Cousins’ way, he picked a fight with him.

“He had that fight, like, ‘No, I’m not backing down from you,’ ” Lee said.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed and the fight never happened, but Ulis gained the respect of his future teammates that day.

“I didn’t really know what to expect with him, knowing he was smaller, but he’s a bulldog inside,” Lee said. “He never backs down from anybody. That’s what I love about him.”

That’s what everyone is coming to love about Ulis.

———

How a kid Ulis’ size – officially 5-foot-9, 155 pounds – makes it to a blueblood program like Kentucky, a school that has the pick of the litter and routinely runs out 6-4 and even 6-6 point guards, seems like an underdog story too good to be true.

It just doesn’t happen very often.

UK – according to the recruiting experts – had its sights set on bigger, higher-ranked point guards. When, for one of the only times in the John Calipari era, those prospects didn’t sign at Kentucky, it appeared to the eyes of the public that the Cats had to figure something out.

Tyler Ulis says he makes up for his lack of size by trying to outsmart his competition.

Jarrod Polson, the backup point guard at the time, was set to graduate. The current starter, Andrew Harrison, was being talked about as a one-and-done player. The only other option on the roster was Dominique Hawkins, who didn’t handle any lead-guard responsibilities in his first season.

What nobody knew at the time is the coaching staff was already recruiting another point guard as well. They had an ace in the hole.

Ulis was once a little-known point guard in the fertile basketball grounds of Chicago, but in the process of becoming his high school’s (Marian Catholic) all-time leader in points (2,335), assists (578) and steals (238), he made a name for himself in a city filled with stars.

Ulis rapidly rose in the recruiting ranks in the summer of 2013, ascending all the way up to No. 20 overall in Scout’s national rankings, but he was also one of the last remaining elite point guards yet to choose a school.  Michigan State, USC and Iowa were all in hot pursuit, but none of them had gotten him to sign his name on the dotted line.

When Kentucky started to make a strong push late in the summer of 2013, UK’s ace in the hole was revealed and a commitment was made quickly.

“I just really liked what Coach Cal was about,” Ulis said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “He didn’t promise me anything. He just told me right off the bat that if I wanted to come here I had to be ready for the spotlight, had to be ready to play and just work hard.”

Make no mistake about it, Ulis knew he wasn’t the only point guard UK had targeted. He understood that, as Kentucky got involved with him, the coaches had also coveted Emmanuel Mudiay, who signed at SMU before eventually going overseas, and he knew they had eyes on Tyus Jones, now with Duke.

When given the chance to play at this stage at the University of Kentucky, he didn’t care he wasn’t the only option. He jumped at the opportunity.

“I really don’t pay attention to it,” Ulis said. “I just want to come here and play my game. I’m here at Kentucky now. I just want to, you know, play.”

As UK fans learned last week during the Cats’ trip to the Bahamas, the coaches got exactly who they wanted. He may not have been the top point guard in the rankings at the time, but Kentucky may have snuck one past everybody and found a gem in Ulis.

———

There was a moment during UK’s third game in the Bahamas when Ulis, eyes locked solely on his defender, ran straight into the screen of a grown man with a body nearly twice his size (it’s worth noting that it’s his teammates’ job to call out the screen). For Ulis, it must have felt like a brick wall as he plowed into the screener and crumpled to the floor.

Dazed, he laid on the court, but only momentarily. Before play was stopped and the officials noticed a player was down, Ulis popped back up and threw a lob pass for a dunk.

Meet the Wildcats

Next up: Trey Lyles

“Tough kid,” assistant coach John Robic said after the game. “Tough kid.”

A similar screen would happen two games later, but Ulis would not only get up again, he would come up with the play of the game when he stole the ball from Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket’s Lionel Chalmers and raced the length of the floor for the game-sealing layup.

“That’s what he does,” assistant coach Barry Rohrssen said of the play. “He wears you down. He’s got quick feet and a big heart.”

A heart so big that it has already won the hearts of thousands in the Big Blue Nation.

Over the course of the six-game exhibition tour in the Bahamas, Ulis averaged 7.7 points, 4.0 assists and 1.3 steals in an even 20 minutes a game, which translates to 15.4 points, 8.0 assists and 2.6 steals over a 40-minute average. But it was his insistence on diving for loose balls, his unselfishness to make the extra pass, his unrelenting on-ball defense, his pinpoint accuracy from 3, and his uncanny ability to hit shots over players a foot taller than him that has quickly made him a fan favorite.

Even an NBA player like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who made a pit stop in Bahamas to watch one of the games, was impressed.

“He’s really good, man,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “He’s really good. He’s small, but that doesn’t really mean anything.”

———

To no avail, Ulis tried putting on weight for years. He would stuff his face with food and lift weights at all hours of the day, but nothing seemed to work.

“I’ve been trying to gain weight for a couple years now and it hasn’t happened yet,” Ulis said.

Until he got to UK’s campus. In just a few short months with Ray “Rock” Oliver, coordinator for men’s basketball performance, and Monica Fowler, UK’s registered dietician, Ulis has put on seven pounds of muscle.

“You got to work hard and play harder than anyone. You just come out and try to outthink the bigger players. They try to rush up on you, you just go by them and just do things to outsmart players.” — Tyler Ulis

Seven pounds may not seem like much, but for a kid who weighed 148 pounds when he arrived on campus, that’s nearly a 5 percent increase in body mass. Ulis just needed a more structured lifting program, a slight change in diet and an increase in caloric intake.

“I’m full a lot,” Ulis said. “My stomach’s pretty full, but I have to do it in order to play. They want me to gain 10 to 15 pounds. And if I want to play I have to.”

Ultimately, though, Ulis is going to be who he is. He’s a small guard and that isn’t changing. And he knows that.

That size doesn’t mean anything for Ulis because he’s learned how to take his perceived weakness and turn it into a strength. Angles that taller players can’t see, Ulis has studied. Passes that bigger point guards can’t make, Ulis finds a window. Shots that seem impossible for him to get off, Ulis has found a way.

“It’s just, you know, you got to work hard and play harder than anyone,” Ulis said of his ability to sometimes do the unthinkable. “You just come out and try to outthink the bigger players. They try to rush up on you, you just go by them and just do things to outsmart players.”

Ulis said it’s taken him years of playing at a disadvantaged height to make up for his lack of size. He said his basketball IQ has been key, but so has his quickness. He’s worked countless hours to hone his craft and develop a floater that gets over taller defenders. He makes his shots count when he gets space, and when he needs to create that space, he’s learned how to use his body to create separation, step back and get off a shot.

“It just comes naturally to me when I’m playing now,” Ulis said.

But don’t underestimate how much heart has to do with it.

Ulis said he used to get so mad when he would play his dad one-on-one – games he would often lose – that he wouldn’t leave the gym until he beat him. It didn’t matter how long it took because time was of no importance when it went head to head with his desire to win.

“I’ve been like that since I was young,” Ulis said. “It’s just all being competitive. … It’s just, you know, a love for the game.”

Calipari said size may eventually become a factor for Ulis, but right now he just doesn’t see it. By picking up his defense in the full court, Ulis can neutralize the opposition’s desire to get him into ball screens or post him up in the lane. He becomes the aggressor.

“He controls what’s happening,” Coach Cal said.

———

Coach Cal raised eyebrows during one of the Bahamas broadcasts when, in the process of complimenting Ulis, he was interpreted as creating a starting point controversy.

“How about when you go to the bench and you’re bringing him in? There’ no – there’s not a dropoff,” Calipari said. “It’s a step up, and it’s a step up in energy.”

Tyler Ulis dazzled fans in the Bahamas with his big heart. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

Was that to say Ulis was a step up over last year’s starting point guard and the projected starter for this season? Calipari would later clarify his comments.

“I’ve got two point guards who are both terrific,” Calipari said. “I can play both together. Late in the game I can have both on the court together. There are times I can change up if I want so that Andrew is ahead to attack. You know, you put them both in together.”

After four games of sticking strictly with two different rotations in the two-platoon system, everyone got to see the two point guards play together in game five with Champagne. Locked in a tight battle, Rohrssen inserted Harrison late in the contest but kept Ulis in there with him.

Ulis would go on to seal the outcome with his steal and layup.

In the next exhibition, against the Dominican Republic national team, Ulis shined with 12 points and five assists. Again, late in the game, he stayed on the court as Harrison entered the contest.

“I feel like we could play together because he’s a 6-5 guard and we both like to get in the lane and attack and dish,” Ulis said. “I could play off a little bit, you know, catch and shoot, and just whatever Cal wants to do.”

Ulis wasn’t surprised like most people were when Harrison decided to return for his sophomore year, nor did it make him reconsider coming to Kentucky.

“I figured he’d want to come back and get a little better, which is great for me because going against him every day in practice, he’s a 6-5 point guard, big body,” Ulis said. “He’s just teaching me the ropes. He played last year, has a lot of experience and he’s just getting me better.”

“He’s going to give it to you in a place you can score. You know what your team does (when that happens)? Everybody runs like crazy because you think you’re going to get the ball. — Coach Cal

Ulis said they are both benefiting from going against each other in practice. By guarding the bigger Harrison, Ulis said he’s learning to play against one of the biggest point guards college has to offer. By facing Ulis, Harrison will learn how to deal with smaller, quicker point guards that gave him problems last season.

“If I want to go to the next level, that’s the type of people I’m going to play against,” Ulis said. “And him, you know, just trying to get up under him, pressure him, just speed him up a little bit so we can both get better.”

Even so, there are still national media members wondering how the two can co-exist. It’s that type of distraction Calipari is hoping his team will avoid listening to if his two-guard, two-platoon system is going to work.

“Andrew is so much better than he was a year ago,” Coach Cal said on ESPNU. “Now, you’ll have some people trying to break down the team saying, ‘Well, Tyler Ulis, he should …’ That’s just because you have an agenda. Andrew Harrison has been playing his butt off. Tyler, think about it, we’re always going to have a point guard in like that?”

Calipari envisions a scenario where both are on the court in crunch time because, as he said, Ulis changes the dynamic of the team.

“He’s going to give it to you in a place you can score,” Coach Cal said. “You know what your team does (when that happens)? Everybody runs like crazy because you think you’re going to get the ball.”

———

That near-fight with Cousins last summer never happened, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying from Ulis.

Sensing this high schooler was about to be squashed by one of the NBA’s biggest players, Lee and Co. had to step in to prevent it from actually happening. It was clear Ulis didn’t care how big Cousins was; he was not going to back down.

“He wasn’t stopping,” Lee said.

Derek Willis was in the gym that day for that would-be fight and saw the same fire in Ulis’ eyes. He came away with the same impression of Ulis as the rest of his teammates.

“He’s an extremely tough kid for his size,” Willis said.

Size has nothing to do with it.