Ulis, Cats Put on Early-Season Display against Duke

Tyler Ulis had five turnovers in his last outing, a statistic that drew understandable attention for a player John Calipari said might be the best “floor general” he has ever coached.

He was asked about it on Monday.

“That won’t happen again,” Ulis said.

It certainly didn’t happen on Tuesday. In fact, Kentucky (3-0) barely had that many turnovers as a team in dominating No. 5/4 Duke (2-1) in the Champions Classic.

Ulis appeared to have the ball on a string throughout his return to his hometown of Chicago. The sophomore point guard had 18 points, six assists and – you guessed it – zero turnovers in UK’s 74-63 win in the United Center.

“With the team we saw, they spread the court and that’s what we like,” Ulis said. “Big guards who can dribble the ball and penetrate defense. Having that with me, Jamal (Murray) and Isaiah (Briscoe), we just kind of take turns. When you’re feeling it, you just let it be know, ‘Give me the ball.’ ”

Ulis’ aforementioned running mates – both freshmen  – were nearly as good as he was. Murray had 16 points, five rebounds and five assists. Briscoe, in spite of battling leg cramps, had 12 points and added a needed dose of toughness against a Duke team that hung around in the first half by bruising UK on the offensive glass.

Ulis, however, was the straw that stirred UK’s drink. That didn’t escape the notice of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.

“I admired his presence throughout the game and his face throughout the game,” Coach K said. “It was the look of a winner."

It’s that look – and a couple other things – that allows Ulis to overcome his 5-foot-9 frame and dominate and Duke backcourt that started a pair of players standing 6-5.

“One, he believes in himself,” Calipari said. “Two, he’s a skilled player with a great feel for the game and you see his leadership on the court. You just feel it. When he’s off the court, you know we’re not the same.”

And, well, Ulis never was off the court on Tuesday night. He played 40 minutes against Duke. That’s quite a departure from a season ago when he platooned at point guard with Andrew Harrison.

“Just more minutes and there’s younger guys on the team, so I have to try to lead by example vocally because I have more experience than them,” Ulis said. “Jamal came in and did his job. He didn’t look like a freshman out there.”

Ulis deserves some credit for enabling Murray to showcase his talent so early in his career. Sharing the court with a point guard as gifted as Ulis tends to mask some deficiencies.

“We have good chemistry and play off each other,” Murray said. “Pick our spots offensively. We just kind of take turns. Between us and Isaiah (Briscoe), we just try to help our team win and put us in the best position.”

A year ago, UK’s primary strength was inside, with a starting frontcourt that featured three players 6-10 or taller. Now Calipari starts three players 6-4 or shorter.

“We’re playing different,” Calipari said. “The whole idea today, other than when we were grinding it up, was to put it on the floor and just move that ball, get some good spacing. We went to dribble-drive, I’m back to teaching that like I did at (Memphis). I’m doing that now.”

Calipari, contrary to popular belief, hasn’t run all that much dribble-drive at UK. Having a player like Ulis can transform your approach.

“He’s kind of like a baseball player that watches the ball and he can see the seams,” Calipari said. “The game’s happening slower for him. We have a couple other guys that their minds are racing. And when your mind races, you can’t really—you’re always behind the action. You can’t react.”

However, college basketball followers nationwide have plenty of time to react to the display UK put on against Duke.

“We’re going to be trouble in a fast-paced game like that because whoever rebounds, me, Isaiah or Jamal, those three guys rebound really well,” Ulis said. “I’m not, I’m really small. We get out, pushing the break, and very unselfish with each other. We understand we all have different types of game and can do a lot of great things. We play well with each other.”