Tyler Ulis may be the most unique player John Calipari has coached in the last decade at Kentucky or Memphis. Since Derrick Rose in 2005-06, Calipari point guards for the most part have been big and physical — and one and done. In 2015-16, the 5'9" Ulis, a sophomore, will be Calipari’s floor general a year after averaging 3.6 assists in 23.8 minutes per game in UK’s platoon system. Ulis joined Athlon Sports to talk about his new leadership role, his confidence even as an undersized point guard recruit, and his outlook on the Wildcats’ upcoming season.
Now that you’ve had time to reflect, how do you view last season’s accomplishments? That was clearly a great team, a great Kentucky team, but one that lost in the Final Four to another good team.
As a whole, we did a great job. We made history. It was fun playing with those guys. I got better individually, and playing with seven people who went to the pros, it was a special team. This year I think we’re going to come out and compete like we did last year but not fall short.
One thing that was evident at the SEC Tournament was how loose and relaxed you guys were. Was it always that way last season?
No, it wasn’t always that way. When we got to the SEC Tournament everybody started playing a lot better as a team. That comes with playing together all year. Eventually you want to click, and we started playing really good basketball.
So you felt like the SEC Tournament was a turning point, even though you didn’t lose during the regular season?
We were at our best in a lot of games during the regular season, but in the SEC Tournament we came out every game and played well. Everybody came in and did their job. For the most part, everyone played well.
Why do you think things changed then in terms of attitude?
We just had more chemistry as a team as the season went on. We were going on trips. Our guys started playing games together, started playing Super Smash Bros.
There was a moment during the SEC Tournament where you stared down Auburn’s 7'2" center Trayvon Reed. What do you remember about that moment?
I was standing on the block and he pushed me a little bit, so I pushed him back. We exchanged a few words. That’s about it.
How often has that happened in your career where you’ve stared down a bigger player?
It doesn’t happen often. But when it does happen, people are going to make a huge deal of it because of my size.
After last season, coach John Calipari told you, “Get your guys and let’s do this again.” Can you describe that interaction?
He texted me. It might have been right after the game (the loss in the Final Four to Wisconsin) or that night. It was a good moment because I felt like he trusted me with the team this year and he felt like we could do this again.
How did it feel to watch seven of your teammates go to the NBA Draft when you were returning to school?
It was a good feeling when guys that you played with saw their dreams come true and knowing you can do the same. I’m happy for all those guys, happy they got drafted. It worked out for the best for everyone. They helped me get better. I’m going to miss practices with those guys because it was non-stop competition.
Did you watch the draft and text those guys?
Oh yeah, of course. I congratulated them and tweeted them.
Was it weird to watch almost your entire team leave all at once?
It wasn’t weird. Those guys were ready. I figured they would be leaving because we had so many great players. They were ready to take their game to the next level.
Do you feel like this year’s team has to be your team?
I feel like that’s the way it’s got to be. Me, Alex (Poythress) and Marcus (Lee). We’ve got a lot of young guys coming in and a lot of people left. Derek (Willis) is going to have to step up, but he doesn’t have that much experience. Once everybody gets used to playing the game of basketball together, it will be the same way it was last year. We’ll have a ton of talented players who will share leadership.
A huge part of your game is your vision and playmaking ability. When was the first time you realized you could see things other guys couldn’t or could see plays develop better than other guards?
At a young age. High school, middle school, ever since I’ve been playing I’ve been known as a high-IQ guy, so I always used that to my advantage, like bigger guys always use their size as an advantage. I was always the smallest guy. That was always my gift. I always played that way, trying to find my teammates, trying to get everyone involved.
What was the first sense of validation that you could be a high-major player and the point guard at a place like Kentucky?
I’ve always felt like that. I’m very confident in my game. I can play at a high level. My parents always told me I’m going to get there. I’ve always had the confidence that my friends and family had. I just waited around for all the offers to come in.
You mentioned your confidence. Your height has been a topic ever since you were a recruit. How did that confidence in your abilities and your future develop?
I don’t know. But I just have been playing so long. I trust my game and I trust in myself and know everything is going to work itself out.
When you were being recruited, you said that a primary reason you went to Kentucky was Calipari’s record of developing point guards. Where are you in that development?
Just make sure I stay healthy. Get more flexible. Get my body together. Get in the weight room, gain weight. Try to polish my game in every way. Right after the season ended, I got with the strength coach and we did a lot of work over the summer. I went back home, and my best friend back there worked me out a lot. We were in the weight room every day. I’m just trying to get stronger. Regardless of my size, I am pretty strong. I’m just trying to go out there and show it.
More than any position on the court, point guard has an identity that comes with it. For you last season, do you feel like you had one even though you were coming off the bench?
I felt like I developed an identity in practice because guys know what you’re doing. And they trust you, trust your game and trust you with the ball in your hands. With me and Andrew (Harrison) playing together, that could have gone wrong because we’re both point guards, but I trusted him and he trusted me.
You’ll have another big freshman point guard this season in Isaiah Briscoe. What did you learn from Andrew in how to handle that dynamic?
Andrew didn’t have to accept me coming in and taking some of his minutes. He never made a big deal about it, never made a problem of it. He just accepted it, and we both played together.
You’ve mentioned your size and how it becomes a big deal. Do you ever get tired of people asking you about your size and how stories always bring it up?
Not anymore. I’m not really focusing on what people say. I just try to listen to my family, my friends and coaches. I’m not trying to live up to anybody’s expectations. I feel like I know what I can do, and no matter what my size is, at the end of the day, you have to know how to play the game.
Was there ever a time when that bothered you?
Of course. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. I wasn’t getting recruited highly early in my career, and that was because of my size. That’s what a lot of people said. I kept at it, and kept working and it all worked out.
What was the toughest place to play last season?
LSU and Georgia and Texas A&M were pretty tough games. I actually like away games. I like the crowd and when they boo you. I like to feed off that.
Who was the toughest team to guard last season?
Probably Ole Miss. Everyone I guarded against Ole Miss seemed like they made a shot. It was a rough game.
Where would you want to play college basketball if not Kentucky?
Right now, this is where I want to be. I love it here. I grew up a Michigan State fan. That’s probably where I would want to be if I wasn’t at Kentucky.