This article originally appeared in the the Nov. 9, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
When 5'9" Tyler Ulis committed to Kentucky in September 2013, he knew he’d never be the most talked about prospect on the roster, but coach John Calipari convinced him that he would be critical to the team’s success. And after seven players left Lexington early for the NBA last June, Calipari’s words have proved prophetic. Ulis, the smallest Wildcat by three inches, is now the team’s unquestioned leader. “He is our best player,” Calipari told reporters at media day, “and it ain’t close.”
Over the summer Ulis, a sophomore, focused first on recovering from the shin splints that hampered him for much of last year. Even though he’ll be asked to score more (5.6 points in 2014–15), he won’t shed his identity as a pass-first point guard who smothers opponents on D. He’s also out to show that he can be just as aggressive defensively in a smaller, three-guard lineup that won’t have Kentucky’s usual forest of 7-foot shot swatters for protection.
Practice against his fellow Wildcats has helped Ulis, well, grow. Last season he guarded Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who are both 6'6". This year he’s battling five-star freshmen Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe, both of whom are likely to beat Ulis to the NBA by a couple of dozen picks—if not a couple of years. Ulis doesn’t care. “[Calipari] believed in me, even though I’m two feet tall,” he says. “And I’m out to prove him right.”
Skal Labissiere, 6'11" freshman center
Kentucky has produced 10 first-round frontcourt players in the last six NBA drafts. Labissiere could go No. 1 in June, but first the skilled big man from Haiti must polish his offensive game and become the next great UK shot blocker.
“I will say our guard play is really, really good. Then I just have to make a decision at some point do we play three, how much do we play three guards, how do we play if we're playing three guards, how do we defend if we're playing three guards? I mean, there's a lot of things that we have to come to grips with on, you know. Last year we played 7-foot, 6'11", 6'10". Now we're playing with three guards the very next year? O.K., how are we going to play? Because it's totally different.” — Bill Self
Projected depth chart
Projected conference race
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