Ulis, Murray Honored by SEC Awards
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Have you ever had a fly that just wouldn’t leave you alone? The little thing would just fly around constantly, circling you, touching you, causing you to maybe lose your composure?
Good. Now you know how opposing players feel when the 5-foot-9 Tyler Ulis – the 2016 Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year – is defending them.
“He’s a pest on defense,” backcourt teammate Jamal Murray said. “He frustrates a lot of teams and opposing players.”
Heck, even Ulis will admit just watching what he does can get annoying.
“I’ve watched film of our games, and I look at myself like, ‘That must be annoying,’” he said. “I just try to harass the man defensively and get up in them and just try to make things happen defensively.”
On Tuesday, in addition to being named defensive player of the year, Ulis was also named the SEC Player of the Year by the league’s head coaches, becoming just the second player ever to take home both honors in the same season, joining fellow Chicago native and UK great Anthony Davis (2012).
“It’s an honor to be recognized for something like that,” Ulis said. “I’m happy for myself. My parents I feel like are feeling it a little more than me. My dad and mom are real emotional.”
The player of the year award is the one that is likely to generate more of the headlines, but it’s the defensive one that Ulis is most proud of. Defense can be one thing that holds a player of his stature back because he is oftentimes going against players much bigger than him. Instead, it’s one of his strengths.
“That’s an award that I like the most because I take pride in my defense,” Ulis said. “I really don’t like being scored on and I didn’t really know if people noticed the defense I played. But that was a surprise to me that I won that award and I’m happy to have it.”
And Murray is happy to only have to face Ulis occasionally in practices.
“Full-court pressure is the worst just because you have to go the full length of the court and then call a play and get the ball back,” Murray said. “It’s just a hassle to – you just feel like he’s so small, you just want to shove him out of the way, but it just doesn’t work like that.”
Murray has joined Ulis in bringing home some hardware. The rookie sharpshooter was a First Team All-SEC selection alongside Ulis, making UK the only school in the league to have two first team honorees. Murray was also named to the SEC All-Freshman team, and USA Today made him the lone freshman to be named a Second Team All-American.
“It’s an honor,” Murray said. “I enjoy those awards and I’m proud of where I’ve come from and how far it’s taken me to this point.”
Don’t be fooled by Murray’s season-long scoring prowess, the 6-4 guard has come a very long way in his first season at UK.
Early in the year, Murray struggled with turnovers and shot selection, often taking the most difficult shot rather a much simpler, higher percentage one. Over the Wildcats’ opening 12 games, he committed three or more turnovers eight different times, including a season-high seven against Louisville, and hit half of his shots from the field just four times during that stretch.
But over the past nine games, Murray has committed three turnovers in a game just once, and has shot 50 percent or better seven different times.
“I play a lot simpler, just calm things down, not try to be too flashy or make the hardest play available,” Murray said. “Just try to get the job done and help my teammates win.
“It wasn’t difficult to understand, just plays that I did make, and could make, and wanted to make them, they weren’t always the highest percentage. So, I just have to play winning basketball and pick the highest percentage.”
Head coach John Calipari said Murray didn’t buy into the process at first, and fought it. A point guard coming out of high school, Murray also had to learn how to play without the ball in his hands. Over time, Murray has not only bought into the process, he’s found his role on the floor and helps give UK arguably the most formidable backcourt in the country.
Now, as UK begins postseason play Friday at the SEC Tournament, it’s safe to wonder whether this will be the final season that the two guards suit up in the Kentucky blue.
For Murray, a projected top-10 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft and whose stock only appears to be going up, the answer seems fairly obvious. The knock on Ulis has always been his height, and whether that would be too big of a detriment at the next level.
So what do awards like Tuesdays prove?
“I guess it proves that I obviously wasn’t too small to play college basketball, but the next level I don’t know yet,” Ulis said. “I’m just focused on this year just trying to still win games.”