Kentucky Basketball: Has Tyler Ulis Earned the Right to Start for the Wildcats?

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2014

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 13:  Tyler Ulis #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Rupp Arena on December 13, 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

What a rough life Kentucky fans have right now.

Their team walked into Louisville’s arena, controlled the game against a top-five squad in the nation and came away with a 58-50 win. It set the stage for what could be an undefeated season with some of the biggest hurdles in the rear-view mirror.

However, some of the postgame discussion revolved around whether there should be a changing of the guard at the point guard position, with Tyler Ulis outplaying Andrew Harrison on the big stage.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 13:  Willie Cauley-Stein #15 and Tyler Ulis #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats defend Marcus Paige #5 of the  North Carolina Tar Heels during the game at Rupp Arena on December 13, 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Harrison finished with a measly three points, four assists, three rebounds and six turnovers on 1-of-6 shooting from the field. To his credit, the one shot that he did hit was his lone three-point attempt.

Ulis was arguably Kentucky’s best player in the game, with 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting and two assists. Most importantly, he did not turn the ball over against Louisville’s suffocating pressure defense. That turnover stat is testament to the freshman’s value to this Kentucky team more than anything else.

Ulis also hit three monumental jump shots in the second half and withstood a nasty elbow that opened up a cut near the corner of his eye that never really stopped bleeding.

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

Ulis is also fresh off a seven-point, seven-rebound, six-assist and one-turnover performance against UCLA and an eight-assist game against North Carolina. Ulis didn't play in the Columbia game either, and the Wildcats struggled to pull away from an overmatched opponent without his energy off the bench.

Still, there is so much talent on this Kentucky team that the most important thing the point guard can do is not cough the ball up and spread it around to his teammates. Harrison’s six turnovers against Louisville’s pressure defense helped keep the Cardinals in the game, while Ulis helped the Wildcats separate down the stretch.

In the last five games, Harrison turned it over six times Saturday, four times against UCLA, three times against North Carolina and five times against Eastern Kentucky. That is entirely too many turnovers.

Still, the thing about a decision like changing the starting point guard is it depends on far more than just statistics. The primary ball-handler needs an understanding and control of the flow of the offense and a level of comfort with his teammates.

Harrison is playing with the first platoon of starters, with a couple of veterans like his brother, Aaron Harrison, and Willie Cauley-Stein. He also has some brief experience with freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles. The level of comfort, especially with his brother, is important for any point guard.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

You can also make the argument that part of the reason Ulis is thriving is because he is starting to feel comfortable alongside the likes of Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Devin Booker.

Booker was particularly impressive in his time on the floor against Louisville and finished with nine points on 3-of-5 shooting, largely because Ulis continued to set him up in positions to succeed.

Ultimately, having two quality point guards is a good problem for any basketball team.

CHICAGO, IL- DECEMBER 20: Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari during the first half of the CBS Sports Classic on December 20, 2014 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

The Wildcats still managed to control the game against the No. 4 team in the country with both Harrisons struggling, which is testament to their ridiculous depth and why it is going to be so difficult to beat them.

The offense only scored 58 points and turned it over 17 times. Throw in 18 offensive rebounds for Louisville, and it is incredible that Kentucky won the way it did. 

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports weighed in on the Ulis vs. Andrew Harrison debate:

Ulis is the best point guard on this Kentucky roster. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the most valuable player on the roster. In big moments, he’s going to be the guy that Coach Cal is forced to turn to at the point.

If the choice is to soothe an ego by starting a sophomore — something I truly doubt Ulis cares about at all — or to risk alienating one of two point guards on his team, the decision is an easy one to make if it’s not going to cost you a game.

The ironic thing about this discussion, though, is that most of what Ulis does well works perfectly off the bench, especially on a team as talented as Kentucky is this season.

Ulis is a burst of speed and energy every time he takes the floor and pressures the opposing point guard on the defensive side. He bothered Chris Jones on a number of different occasions and at least played a role in Jones’ 3-of-15 shooting clip from the field.

Jones also only had a single assist on the game and really didn't control the contest at all for Louisville.

Ulis also uses his explosiveness with the ball in his hand on offense to penetrate and slice through the defense and set up his teammates from deep when the opponents collapse. He can also pull up from deep or on the elbow when attacking with a soft touch on his jumper.

Having that type of energy off the bench is critical, especially in a game like fans saw Saturday when the team needs a spark on offense. 

Ulis may very well be the best point guard on the roster, but it works better for Kentucky’s situation to unleash his energy off the bench.

Related

    Bluegrass Boys Knocked Out in First Round of The Basketball Tournament

    Kentucky Wildcats Basketball logo
    Kentucky Wildcats Basketball

    Bluegrass Boys Knocked Out in First Round of The Basketball Tournament

    Zack Geoghegan
    via Kentucky Sports Radio

    KBC defeats Peoria All-Stars in opening round of The Basketball Tournament

    Kentucky Wildcats Basketball logo
    Kentucky Wildcats Basketball

    KBC defeats Peoria All-Stars in opening round of The Basketball Tournament

    Jack Pilgrim
    via Kentucky Sports Radio

    Kyle Wiltjer Receives Team Canada Training Camp Invite

    Kentucky Wildcats Basketball logo
    Kentucky Wildcats Basketball

    Kyle Wiltjer Receives Team Canada Training Camp Invite

    Zack Geoghegan
    via Kentucky Sports Radio

    DeMarcus Cousins’ squad wins their first game of The Basketball Tournament

    Kentucky Wildcats Basketball logo
    Kentucky Wildcats Basketball

    DeMarcus Cousins’ squad wins their first game of The Basketball Tournament

    Jack Pilgrim
    via Kentucky Sports Radio