Kentucky basketball stands to be among the deepest teams in the country in 2014-15, with the usual crop of elite freshmen joining an unexpected bounty of returning talent. With so many high-level players on hand, the bench is going to be a big part of this edition of the Wildcats, and no player on that bench will mean as much to John Calipari's squad as Tyler Ulis.
Although he was overshadowed in recruiting by potential one-and-done types like Tyus Jones and Emmanuel Mudiay, Ulis is a first-class point guard in his own right. The Illinois product stands a mere 5’9”, 150 pounds, but he has the blink-and-you-miss-him quickness common to undersized guards.
More important than his physical tools, though, is what Ulis adds in the mental game. No other player on Big Blue’s roster, including Final Four-tested Andrew Harrison, can match the freshman for decision-making skills and ability to run an offense.
Harrison, with his year of college experience and 6’6” length, is a shoo-in to retain the starting job, not least because of his rapport with twin brother and 2-guard, Aaron. However, even at his best, the Wildcats’ incumbent point guard was far from efficient in his first season of college ball.
As much as Andrew Harrison’s confidence and assertiveness improved during Kentucky’s meteoric postseason, the then-freshman succeeded largely by using the team’s strengths to hide his own weaknesses.
Instead of trying to make the precision plays that had eluded him all year, Harrison pinned his ears back and started attacking the lane with abandon. The result was plenty of shots—and offensive rebounding chances for a team that excelled in that department—but also plenty of turnovers. Even with his improved passing numbers, his assist-to-turnover ratio for the NCAA tournament landed at a painful 1.25.
That’s a hole Ulis is perfectly suited to filling, taking pressure off Harrison and improving the entire offense in the process. The newcomer’s drive-and-kick skills will also bolster the Wildcats’ much-maligned long-range shooting, especially as Harrison himself (who hit 35.1 percent of his rare three-point tries) can spot up if the two are on the floor together.
Ulis, of course, isn’t the only reserve who offers Calipari a skill set that his starters lack. Centers Willie Cauley-Stein (shot-blocking) and Karl-Anthony Towns (three-point shooting) are both the best on the roster in their respective specialties.
What makes Ulis different is that as a point guard, he’ll have an easier time raising the level of the team by his presence than the big men will.
Adding one three-point shooter doesn’t make a great offense, nor (as Cauley-Stein learned to his frustration a year ago) can one great rim protector necessarily salvage a struggling D. On the other hand, a top-notch point guard such as Ulis is in a position to improve the flow and shot selection for the entire attack. Getting all five players in sync with each other is a skill last year's Wildcats could really have used in the regular season, and that's a boost Ulis will be able to offer from the get-go.
Alex Poythress, last year’s super-sub, will still bring invaluable energy and experience to the table, but he can't provide anything that isn't in the starting lineup already. Ulis can, and he'll prove it before his freshman year is out.