Editor's note: There are plenty of new faces in college basketball. But don't lose sight of those who are back for more. This week, we look at returning players who will have a big impact on their teams this season. Today: Kentucky's Tyler Ulis.
At Kentucky, it is always about the freshmen. The bright, shiny new pennies are understandably intriguing, what with their talent and promise.
It’s more of the same this season, as coach John Calipari welcomes a class ranked second in the country. It is not last season's mighty crew, nor next season's potentially (latest) greatest of all time, but it is not exactly meh, either.
Except if history -- or at least the short version of it that covers the one-and-done era -- has proven anything, it is that while we may lose ourselves in the newcomers, it’s often the veterans who hold the secrets to success. Even -- or maybe more accurately, especially -- at Kentucky, where the turnover is great and the pressure and limelight even greater.
And perhaps for the first time in Calipari’s tenure at Lexington, the returnees might just be more critical than the freshmen. Seven players said their goodbyes to Big Blue Nation at the end of last season, meaning that essentially Calipari would be starting from scratch again.
Now more than ever he needs a veteran to lead, which makes point guard Tyler Ulis the most critical player in a Kentucky uniform, maybe the most critical returning player in the nation.
Alex Poythress, who re-enters post-ACL injury, may be the elder statesman on the team, but Ulis will have the ball in his hands.
The ratio of great point guard to Calipari success is proven -- Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Marquis Teague. Ulis easily could be the next one. Though he never started a game, Ulis finished many of them, proving to be Kentucky’s surest bet at the point. By season’s end, he was the de facto starter, averaging 27 minutes in the postseason.
He averaged 5.6 points and 3.6 assists during the season, but you can’t quantify a player’s mastery of the game or his defense. Ulis has both, a guard who can play at a frenetic pace yet be a sure-handed picture of calm on the court.
But being the relief point guard is like being the backup quarterback -- sometimes, no one seems more appealing than the guy on the bench.
This season, Ulis won’t have that luxury. There is no Andrew Harrison to absorb the venom when things don’t go well.
“The pressure was on them," Ulis told the Louisville Courier-Journal, referring to the Harrison twins.
Instead, he is the guy now, which sometimes might make him the target. Kentucky is going to be good, but there is good, and then there is 38-1, and while maybe even the most audacious Wildcats fan won’t expect the team to replicate that, they have been proven to be a rather intolerant group when it comes to hiccups, and more to losses.
And with a schedule that hasn’t been dumbed down any -- Duke, Louisville, Kansas, UCLA and Ohio State are on the nonconference slate -- combined with a team that is a rebuild (or a reboot), there very well may be a few hiccups.
Can Ulis play with the same sort of controlled abandon when the pressure is on? Whether he can will tell just how good the Wildcats will be.
Of course, there is the more tangible to deal with, too -- like the actual playing of basketball. Ulis averaged 23 minutes last season, the spark plug off the bench. Now he may never see the bench again.
Calipari went from having a team so deep he had to employ platoons to keep everyone happy, to a roster that has just nine scholarship players. TV timeouts will be welcomed.
That’s especially true for Ulis. There really is no one who can replace him -- Isaiah Briscoe certainly can play on the ball, but will be more effective off. Ulis will have to log long minutes and that’s a lot to ask of a player who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds.
But asking a lot of a player in a Kentucky uniform is not unusual; frankly , it’s the norm. Tyler Ulis is just the latest in a long line of players to waltz onto center stage.
The only twist ... he’s just not a freshman.