LSU forward Ben Simmons might still be the favorite to win the SEC’s Player of the Year award. But he shouldn’t start preparing his award speech just yet.
Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis would like to throw his hat into the ring.
The sophomore, who was stashed away on the bench during Kentucky’s incredible run to the Final Four last season, has catalyzed the Cats this season. Without Ulis, Kentucky might not be in contention for the SEC, let alone a national championship this year. He’s averaging 16.7 points — second on the team to freshman guard Jamal Murray — and 6.7 assists per game.
It’s Ulis’ talent, combined with an uncanny ability to lead the team as a floor general, that had SEC coaches raving about him during Monday’s teleconference.
Passion, energy, leadership, control and impact were some of the words the coaches used to describe Ulis. Another common theme among the coaches was this: Ulis is definitely in the thick of the Player of the Year race.
“I can tell you not one other guy comes into my mind as more deserving,” Florida coach Mike White said of Ulis. “He’s unbelievable in the way that he affects every facet of the game. I appreciated watching him on TV and studying him on film. But I appreciated Tyler at an entirely different level when we competed live at Rupp Arena.”
White was most impressed by Ulis’ constantly energetic and frantic effort.
“I thought that he was their engine,” White said. “I thought he made them go. Leadership qualities jumped out. His motor jumped out. I know he was fast and he was quick, but he played unbelievably hard every second that he was on the floor.
“He just seems like he’s an ultra-competitive kid who really utilizes that speed and quickness by playing as hard as he does.”
White wasn’t the only coach to give glowing reviews of the 5-foot-9, 160 pound point guard. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes was inspired by how Ulis exhibited toughness during Kentucky’s 84-77 loss to the Volunteers on Feb. 2.
“I love him,” Barnes said. “I would say he does a lot of great things well, but I think he’s just a big-time competitor … I know he showed me some things in our game where, right in front of me, it looked like he turned his ankle. He simply tied his shoe up tighter and kept playing. That talks about a guy who loves the game. He has a passion for it.”
Ulis seems to have soaked in coach John Calipari’s teachings and coaching. It showed last weekend against South Carolina, when Calipari was ejected from the game just three minutes into the contest. Ulis ran the offense seamlessly without any additional coaching, and led the Wildcats to a 27-point victory over the Gamecocks.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin said if the season ended today, Ulis would earn his vote.
“You can’t rattle him,” Martin said. “You can’t speed him up. He’s tough as nails.”
Ulis doesn’t just make his impact in the hustle and leadership departments, either. The stat sheet gives him plenty of merit, as well. He’s on pace to break a school record for average assists per game, he has already shattered a school record with at least four dimes in his last 18 outings and he is one of four players in the country who is averaging 16.7 points and 6.7 assists. The numbers definitely don’t sell Ulis short, even if his height does.
Ulis’ hustle, leadership and production all combine into one trait: Impact. And that attribute may earn Ulis the conference’s most coveted individual honor.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody that’s been any more impactful,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Simmons, obviously, has been impactful for LSU. Murray has been impactful for Kentucky, obviously. But nobody has been any more impactful for their team than Tyler Ulis has been.”