After recent losses to UCLA and then Ohio State, in the CBS Sports Classic, there’s been a course correction on the expectations for Kentucky in 2016. But Tyler Ulis has emerged, first in a fantastic performance against Louisville and then again on Saturday in an 83-61 win against Ole Miss, as the key to Kentucky not only competing in the SEC but against the best in the country in March.
With non-conference play over, the Wildcats move back into the familiar position of the hunted in SEC competition. Kentucky always has a target on its back against any competition, but there is familiarity which helps parity and the league’s coaches are a little bit better than they were a few years ago.
Kentucky should still finish the season as the SEC champion, but Saturday night’s win against Ole Miss was another bit of evidence for the argument that Tyler Ulis, not highly-touted freshmen Skal Labissiere or Jamal Murray, is going to be one of the most important pieces of this version of John Calipari’s Wildcats.
Ulis was aggressive early and finished with 20 points and a career-high 10 assists, becoming the first Kentucky player to score 20+ points in back-to-back games since James Young (February 2014). Marcus Lee added 13 points and eight rebounds as the Wildcats dominated the glass (41-27) against an Ole Miss team that never really put up a fight in the loss.
Ulis also set the tone on the the defensive end of the floor, recording a career-high six steals and shutting down Ole Miss star guard Stefan Moody early.
While many experts expected to be seeing Skal or Murray rounding into form as SEC play was starting, it’s been Ulis and Lee that have emerged as the most consistent performers on Kentucky’s deep rotation. Lee showed a great example of running the floor and cleaning up on the glass in the first half Jamal Murray missed a layup in transition.
With Ulis and Lee leading the way, Kentucky had its second most efficient offensive night of the season (1.222 points per possession) and shot 50 percent from the field.
Other highlights (or developments) from the night include Jordan Smith singing the national anthem before the game and Dominique Hawkins suffering an ankle injury that will be worth monitoring moving forward.
Up next for the Wildcats is a road trip to play Ben Simmons and LSU. While Simmons will share headlines with Kentucky’s freshmen, keep your eye on the Tigers’ vets to try and push the Wildcats like they did a year ago in Baton Rouge.