Tyler Ulis

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No. 5 Kentucky pulls away thanks to improved second-half execution

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A Kodi Justice three-pointer in the final seconds of the first half capped a mediocre 20 minutes for No. 5 Kentucky. While they did hold a one-point lead at that point, the Wildcats looked nothing like one of the nation’s top teams. Whatever John Calipari and his staff said to the players in the locker room got through to the players, as the Wildcats produced a far better half of basketball on their way to the 72-58 victory in Lexington.

And moving forward, the key for Kentucky will be putting together quality performances for a full forty minutes as opposed to doing so in fits and spurts.

A 19-5 second half run put the game out of reach for the visiting Sun Devils, who grabbed nearly half of their available offensive rebound opportunities (eight offensive rebounds to nine defensive rebounds for Kentucky) in the first half. Arizona State did grab seven offensive rebounds in the second half, but thanks to Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress (four defensive rebounds each) the Wildcats did a better job of limiting the visitors to one shot.

Those defensive rebounds helped the Wildcats establish a better flow on the offensive end, with Kentucky scoring 20 of their 40 second-half points in the paint and shooting 57.7 percent from the field.

Poythress (ten points, six rebounds) left the game in the first half with a hyperextended right knee (not the one he injured last season) after playing some of his best basketball of the season, and with Skal Labissiere once again ineffective (zero points, zero rebounds) the senior’s absence was felt. Since the start of the season Calipari’s been on Poythress to be more athletic on the court, because he has the potential to change the equation offensively for the Wildcats.

Lee, who’s been effective this season, finished Saturday’s game with 14 points and seven rebounds and has been an important piece for the Wildcats in the front court. But with the strides Labissiere still needs to make being greater than many anticipated before the season began, Poythress’ aggressiveness is an important factor for Kentucky moving forward. They missed him when he wasn’t on the court, with Arizona State hitting the offensive glass, and that changed for the better when he returned.

Another positive in the second half for Kentucky was their perimeter shooting, as they made five of their ten attempts from three after shooting 1-for-11 in the first half. Arizona State used a zone at times, and unlike the first half in which Kentucky settled offensively they were more disciplined in finding quality looks. The Wildcats have capable shooters in Tyler Ulis (12 points, six assists), Jamal Murray (17 points) and Isaiah Briscoe, but they don’t have a consistent knockdown guy.

That makes the quality of shots they get that much more important, and in the second half thanks to their improved execution the Wildcats averaged 1.14 points per possession (0.87 first half).

Given the combination of new pieces and guys who were supplementary options a season ago stepping into primary roles, this is going to be a work in progress. Kentucky took some positive steps in their half-court offense in the second half Saturday, which allowed them to pull away from Arizona State. And as they continue to work on that aspect of their game, the Wildcats need to figure out how to get their prized freshman big man going.

Hyperextended elbow could sideline Kentucky’s Ulis Monday night

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In the midst of No. 1 Kentucky’s comfortable win over USF on Friday, sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis went down with a hyperextended right elbow. Kentucky does have two other players capable of running the point in freshmen Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe, but there’s no denying the importance of Ulis to this team.

The question now is whether or not Ulis will be available when the Wildcats host Illinois State Monday night, and there has yet to be a definitive answer. Ulis didn’t practice Sunday, and should he miss Monday’s game Kentucky loses a player who has provided (among many things) consistency at the point.

“And without Tyler now, you have to understand the last six minutes of that half and what we did the first five or six minutes of that second half, that was without Tyler. We were really good,” Calipari said Sunday. “It’s just they couldn’t sustain it. That’s what Tyler does. Tyler just keeps coming and he does not stop and he’s not going to make mistakes to let another team get back in the game. That’s the difference. That’s the experience.”

The absence of Ulis would give Murray and Briscoe more time with the ball in their hands running the point, and they’d have to do so against an Illinois State team that gave No. 2 Maryland all it wanted in Cancun earlier this week.

While Friday’s game was well in hand when Ulis was injured, the Wildcats and Bulls played to a stalemate in the final 20 minutes. Doing so against an Illinois State team expected to be a factor in the Missouri Valley Conference would be dangerous.

Following Monday’s game, Kentucky makes the trip out west to take on UCLA Thursday night.

Kentucky’s Alex Poythress hopes to be cleared by the end of August

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As John Calipari told Heather Cox of ESPN on Thursday night at the 2015 NBA Draft in Brooklyn, Kentucky’s 2014-15 season officially ended that night.

As the focus shifts to another talented team in Lexington, one of the questions heading into next season is the status of senior forward Alex Poythress. The 6-foot-8 Poythress started the first eight games of the season, but was sidelined for the remainder of the year after tearing the ACL in his left knee during a mid-December practice.

Steve Jones of the Courier-Journal received an update from Poythress’ progress on Friday afternoon at Rajon Rondo’s annual Camp Rondo.

On his health and if he’ll be 100 percent by the start of the season

Yeah, close. They’re trying to say I’ll probably be cleared by the end of August probably, so I’ll just keep on doing my rehab, keep on doing what I need to do and trying to get healthy and trying to get back out there.

On how much he’s able to do right now

I’m doing all the lifting and conditioning with the team. I’m not playing with them, but I am running on the track with them, doing footwork drills with them.

Poythress averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in his shortened junior season.

This has been an eventful week for the Kentucky program. On Wednesday evening, top-15 recruit Jamal Murray committed to Kentucky, a huge score for a program that saw seven players declare for the draft less than three months earlier. Speaking of the NBA Draft, four Wildcats were selected within the first 13 picks — six in all — during Thursday’s draft.

Poythress, Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee will be joined by the incoming class of Murray, Isaiah Briscoe, Charles Matthews and Skal Labissiere, the top-rated player in the Class of 2015, according to Rivals. The Wildcats are ranked No. 3 in College Basketball Talk‘s Way-Too-Early Preseason Rankings.

Top-ranked Kentucky moves to 32-0 with SEC tournament win over Florida

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One year after Florida won all 18 of its SEC regular season games and the SEC tournament title, No. 1 Kentucky moved one step closer to accomplishing the same feat with a win over the Gators.

The Wildcats weren’t at their best offensively, shooting 37.5 percent from the field, but they limited Florida to 33.3 shooting in the second half as they went on to win 64-49 in Nashville. Florida, which trailed by four at the break and by five with 7:40 remaining, went more than five minutes without a point as Kentucky clamped down defensively and established a comfortable margin down the stretch.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Aaron Harrison scored 13 points apiece as Kentucky’s lone double-digit scorers, with Town adding a game-high 12 rebounds. Towns and Harrison combined to score 16 points, and point guards Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis combined for four assists and one turnover in the second half.

The Wildcats didn’t shoot much better from the field in the second half than they did in the first, making 39.1 percent of their attempts, but they did get to the foul line on a far more frequent basis. Kentucky shot 13-for-15 from the foul line in the second half, outscoring Florida by ten points in that department.

For Florida, which has struggled with inconsistency all season, to have a shot at beating Kentucky they needed their best players to be productive and that didn’t happen. Dorian Finney-Smith (four points) made two of his ten shots from the field, and Michael Frazier (two points on 0-for-4 shooting) struggled as well. What helped Florida hang around was the play of Eli Carter and Jon Horford, who finished with a combined 26 points on 12-for-20 shooting, but not getting solid afternoons from Finney-Smith and Frazier proved costly especially during the decisive scoring drought.

From an NCAA tournament seeding standpoint Kentucky won’t gain anything this weekend. They’ll still be the top overall seed, and geographically speaking their path to the Final Four looks to be one with stops in Louisville and Cleveland before getting to Indianapolis (provided they win, of course).

But there’s still the need to work towards getting better each day, and Friday’s win will give Kentucky plenty to look at when it comes to pinpointing where they need to improve with an eye towards a national title run.

No. 1 Kentucky moves to 29-0 with blowout win over No. 18 Arkansas

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No. 1 Kentucky has rolled through the majority of its games this season, with head coach John Calipari’s talented mix of freshmen (four of them, to be exact) and returnees who finished one game short of a national title last season establishing themselves as the clear favorites to win the national title. In No. 18 Arkansas, Kentucky was faced with their lone ranked opponent in SEC play, and it should also be noted that the Razorbacks won both meetings last season and held a three-game win streak in the series.

But none of that mattered at Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon, as Kentucky rolled to an 84-67 victory that wasn’t as close as the final margin would lead one to believe. The Wildcats, who shot just 5-for-17 from beyond the arc, outscored the Razorbacks 40-24 in the paint and made nearly 56 percent of their two-point shots.

That percentage inside of the arc may not be considered “elite,” but in Arkansas’ seven-game win streak prior to Saturday’s loss just one team managed to make at least 50 percent of their two-point shots (Missouri). Kentucky simply had too much skill, size and athleticism for the visitors, and while Mike Anderson’s team didn’t quit they were fighting upstream all afternoon.

Starters Andrew Harrison and Trey Lyles scored 18 points apiece, and reserve guards Tyler Ulis (14) and Devin Booker (ten) combined to score 24 off the bench. Aaron Harrison may have shot just 2-for-11 from the field, but Kentucky has more than enough weapons to account for one player’s off afternoon.

Yet even with Kentucky’s offensive options, the biggest problem for Arkansas was the impact Kentucky had on the defensive end. The Wildcats limited the Razorbacks to 37.5% shooting from the field and 5-for-18 from beyond the arc, with both percentages well below Arkansas’s numbers for the season. And for a team that has utilized its depth well throughout the season, Arkansas received just seven points from its reserves.

Arkansas needed to produce its best showing of the season to have a shot at handing Kentucky its first loss of the season. That didn’t occur, and the Wildcats had a lot to do with that. The remainder of Kentucky’s opponents will face similar odds between now and the end of the season. And Saturday’s demolition was the latest piece of evidence that “putting it all together” against the Wildcats is far easier said than done.

Tyler Ulis proves he’s Kentucky’s best point guard in 58-50 win over Louisville

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Tyler Ulis (Getty Images)

No. 1 Kentucky scored just 58 points on Saturday in Louisville, turning the ball over 17 times and giving up 18 offensive rebounds to the Cardinals.

And it didn’t matter.

The Wildcats improved to 12-0 on the season and moved past the biggest hurdle in their pursuit of perfection with a 58-50 win over No. 4 Louisville in a game that UK had a pretty firm grasp on for the majority of the second half. The lead never grew past 12 and Louisville was never more than a pair of threes away from getting right back into the game, but it just never felt like that was going to happen.

You may disagree with me, but the bottom-line is this: Kentucky’s defense was simply astounding on Saturday. They held Louisville to 25.9 percent shooting from the floor and a 3-for-14 performance from beyond the arc. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that the Cardinals had just a single assist on the afternoon, a direct result of the pitiful play they got from Chris Jones and, to a point, Terry Rozier.

But that’s not what won Kentucky this game.

Tyler Ulis is.

The point guard looked anything but a freshman, finishing 14 points and two assists without a turnover against Louisville intense pressure. He also hit a trio of huge jumpers as Kentucky pulled away in the second half. All that happend despite the fact that an elbow early in the first half gave him a cut on the corner of his eye that didn’t stop bleeding the entire game.

But most importantly, Ulis was his able to get the Wildcats into their offense on Saturday. When he was on the floor, they actually got good looks at the basket, which couldn’t be said about a point guard on the floor for either team.

The difference in how well Ulis and Andrew Harrison played was massive. Harrison had six turnovers, was 1-for-6 from the floor and much of the game sulking on the bench, sitting while his team made a run and clapping only if his brother made a shot. The broadcast also showed an exchange, after Harrison took an awful shot early in the shot clock and late in the game, where John Calipari screamed at him, saying “you [expletive] stay in this huddle!”

Ulis is the best point guard on this Kentucky roster. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the most valuable player on the roster. In big moments, he’s going to be the guy that Coach Cal is forced to turn to at the point.

I say “forced” because I don’t think that this performance will move Ulis into the starting lineup. We all saw Harrison’s reaction to seeing his backup outplay him in the biggest game of the year, and it wasn’t pretty. What will happen if he gets benched for the freshman? That’s not a risk that Coach Cal will want to take, not when he only has two points guards on the roster.

And, quite frankly, how often is Kentucky going to run into a situation where they are really going to be in danger of losing a game if they split minutes between the two point guards? Hint: not often.

If the choice is to soothe an ego by starting a sophomore — something I truly doubt Ulis cares about at all — or to risk alienating one of two point guards on his team, the decision is an easy one to make if it’s not going to cost you a game.