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Tyler Ulis takes charge as dynamic Kentucky backcourt stymies Duke

Sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis lead a Kentucky backcourt that frustrated Duke in Tuesday’s Champions Classic. 

CHICAGO — Duke needed a play, someone to create offense in the waning moments of the first half on Tuesday night, and the ball made its way into the hands of Grayson Allen outside the three-point line. This made some sense. Allen averaged 27 points in the first two games of the year, and the sophomore is probably the Blue Devils’ best option for attacking the rim off the bounce and drawing a defense. Opting to call his number was fine. The results were not. 

Off the first bounce, three Kentucky defenders converged. It was chaos, instantly, a full meltdown of anything approximating good offense. The ball bounced around a bit before the Wildcats corralled it. Not shockingly, that ball swiftly made its way through the net at the other end, another of the abundant transition opportunities Kentucky converted in this Champions Classic matchup. As freshman Isaiah Briscoe mugged with his mouthpiece hanging off his lip, Duke skulked off the court, deflated by another counterpunch from the Wildcats’ jet-propelled guards. But then it’s always disappointing when someone shows you exactly what you’re missing. 

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There’s something very auspicious about Kentucky after its 74–63 win here, though it’s more subtle than the way the Wildcats turned their last visit to the United Center into a horror show, putting a decent UCLA team through a grain thresher last December. No, this was something less bloody than that 39-point win but no less meaningful: Teams win with good guards, and teams can win huge when their guards are lightning bolts that can alter a game at both ends. Between Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Briscoe, Kentucky should have someone capable of getting a shot or making a play on every single trip.

This seems like a championship essential, and it was essentially the case on Tuesday: Kentucky’s guards either scored or assisted on 24 of the team’s 30 field goals on the night.

“Our backcourt took care of it,” Ulis said. “We saw they spread the court out, and that’s what we like, being guards that can penetrate the defense. Me, Jamal and Zay, we just kind of take turns.” 

This is part backcourt, part multi-pronged electrical outlet: There should always be a charge available even if one or two spots have shorted out. “That’s why it makes us good,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “Last year, we had 7-foot, 7-foot, 6'10". This year we’re 5'9", 6'2", 6'5". Last year—why did you throw it to the post every time? Seven-foot, 7-foot, 6'10". Why are you driving it every time? Five-nine, 6'2", 6'5". We’re just a different team. We’re playing different. The whole idea today was to put it on the floor, just move that ball, get some good spacing.

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​Calipari finished his thought by noting that he’s back to the dribble-drive, teaching like he did at “that other school,” but even reducing Kentucky’s advantage to Xs and Os is an over-simplification. The Wildcats’ speed is bracing, as evidenced by a ridiculous 18–4 advantage in fast-break points on Tuesday. But without guards who can strike the match on a transition opportunity, it means nothing. And then there’s the havoc that trio can wreak on the other end: Ulis, Briscoe and Murray recorded eight steals against Duke, dosing every possession with misery. “On the perimeter,” Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “those three kids had tough nights.” Briscoe, in particular, took the lead in frustrating Allen, who missed his first nine shots en route to a 2-for-11 effort.

Ulis, Murray and Briscoe combined for 48 points and 12 assists overall. In its kinetic, confident backcourt, Kentucky has what Duke doesn’t, at least not yet.

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But at the core of this assessment is an even more propitious truth: Maybe no one anywhere has someone like Ulis. 

The 5'9" Chicago native basked in an ovation as loud as anyone’s before a hometown crowd and then played as if he was in the middle of nowhere. He logged 40 minutes without a turnover, making his team-highs of 18 points and six assists almost of ancillary importance. Kentucky is all of three games into this season, and the presumptions of today can spin into a ditch within a month. But Ulis exerts an effervescence upon his team, inflicting his energy upon both Kentucky and its opponents, to opposite effects for each.

“God was good to him,” Krzyzewski said. “They didn’t give him height, but they gave him probably a heart that’s five times bigger than most people. He has great balance. And he’s got poise. It doesn’t look like he gets tired. He’s in complete control of his team. Competing against him, I admired his presence throughout the game and his face throughout the game. It was the face of a winner, and a really good leader.”

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A team run by the Harrison twins the previous two seasons was, obviously, effective. But it was methodical. A team run by Ulis just looks so much more expansive. The numbers from last year suggested it might, too: As a freshman, Ulis had the second-highest offensive rating of any Kentucky regular (123.3), despite his relatively limited role, and his defensive rating (90.3) was even better than Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet (91.4), who is considered one of the best defensive point guards in the nation. “When he’s off the court, you know we’re not the same,” Calipari said. “He’s like a baseball player who watches the ball and he can see the seams. The game happens slower for him.”

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It’s another way to say things come easy for Ulis, even when Duke tried its best to make things hard. It rotated defenders like Allen, the 6'5" Matt Jones, the 6'2" Derryck Thornton and even the 6'9" Brandon Ingram on to Kentucky’s point guard, to virtually no effect. Ulis’s consistency in turn should make things easy on Kentucky. It certainly did Tuesday, when the Wildcats broke open the game early in the second half: Their first six buckets were all layups or dunks, five of which were the handiwork of the guards themselves or their passes that led directly to the score. 

“We’re going to be trouble in a fast-paced game like that,” Ulis said.

Asked how his role has evolved from last year, Ulis went to boilerplate material, alluding to increased minutes and an enhanced responsibility to lead. That is hardly where the list ends. Tuesday confirmed that Kentucky’s undersized point guard can inject his team with an outsize spirit, and his team will be able to command virtually any game as long as Ulis’s backcourt-mates share the vibe and the ball. Even if they don’t, even if the Wildcats falter early on a given night, their guards should have the capacity to change things in a blink. Given the history of recent national champions with guards imposing themselves on the action at critical moments, that seems elemental to everything this team wants to achieve.

This Champions Classic matchup ended with another Duke turnover on another steal by a Kentucky guard, with the ball flung far ahead toward the opposite basket. For the first time all evening, as time ran out, the Wildcats slammed on the brakes and declined to attack. No one should expect to see much more of it.