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Billy Reed: This year’s team is my all-time favorite of Cal’s — and Ulis stands out


Of John Calipari’s seven University of Kentucky basketball teams, the current one is my favorite. The reason is simple. It’s composition is more like a traditional college team instead of an NBA team on training wheels.

I have said repeatedly that Calipari is the greatest recruiter in college history. To bring in a steady procession of NBA draft picks without any NCAA investigations is a remarkable achievement. He’s more plugged in at every level than just about any coach in the nation.

He has said that draft day is more important to him than winning an NCAA title. By that standard, no other coach in UK history can touch him. But by other standards, most notably players graduated, he falls far short of any coach in UK history.

Which, of course, is fine with the fan base in a state that values basketball more than education. (See Governor Bevin’s proposed budget cuts in higher education).

 Tyler Ulis is Billy's favorite.  (UK Athletics Photo)

Tyler Ulis is Billy’s favorite. (UK Athletics Photo)

The first thing I like about this team is that it has a senior who already has gotten his degree. That would be Alex Poythress, who’s currently out with an injury. He’s the first Calipari-recruited blue-chipper to graduate.

I also like the fact that this team has three juniors, two of whom are products of Kentucky high schools. Homegrown players have been rather scarce in Calipari’s tenure. But 6-9 Derek Willis of Bullitt East worked his way into the starting lineup and has become an important contributor. Dominique Hawkins of Madison Central has been fighting injuries all season.

The third junior, 6-10 Marcus Lee, could have turned pro and been drafted last year. But he opted to come back for a third season, which has enabled him to work on his skills and move closer to a degree. I like that.

The only certain one-and-done on this team is Jamal Murray, who has lived up to his billing as a scorer. He leads UK in scoring at 19.2 points per game and is making 40 per cent of his three-pointers. He’ll probably be a Top 10 pick in the draft. The other freshman who may go, even though he probably shouldn’t, is Isaiah Briscoe. He’s a fine athlete but woeful shooter. He could use another season.

I’ve even enjoyed watching the ups and downs of 6-11 freshman Skal Labissierre, who was being projected as the draft’s No. 1 pick before the season. He was even featured in a Sports Illustrated story that told us how he protected his mother when a deadly earthquake hit his native Haiti. How can you not pull for a kid like that?

Unfortunately, Skal is not as mature physically or mentally as some of Calipari’s past can’t-miss recruits. He gets pushed around and knocked off balance a lot. But he also has shown some tantalizing flashes of brilliance that make you understand why he may decide to turn pro, ready or not.

 Kentucky coach John Calipari   (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky coach John Caliperi (Bill Thiry Photo)

I’m saving the best for last.

I’ve been following UK basketball for more than 55 years, and I’ve rarely enjoyed a player as much as 5-9 point guard Tyler Ulis. If he were as big as John Wall, he probably would be the No. 1 pick in the draft. Nevertheless, despite his small stature, he’s going to play in the league because he does everything else so well – shoot, penetrate, pass, play defense, and lead.

It’s a nice team, but it has flaws and holes, as Texas A&M may well expose Saturday evening. But to me, that only makes it easier to get behind it. If this team gets to the Final Four, it won’t be because it has more raw talent than anybody else. It will be because Calipari found ways to cover the flaws, got the players to understand what they can and can’t do well, and just refused to lose when everybody starts playing for keeps.

Next year it probably will be back to business as usual because Calipari again is bringing in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. So far the class includes 6-4 hooting guard Malik Monk of Bentonville, Ark.; 6-9 power forward Edrice “Bam” Adebayo of Jacksonville, N.C.; 6-4 point guard De’aaron Fox of Katy, TX; 6-9 power forward Wenyen Gabriel of Wibraham, Mass.; and 6-10 Sacha Killeya-Jones of Lynchburg, Va.

Those five figure to replace Poythress, Murray, Ulis, Lee and maybe Briscoe. They will give Calipari more size and lineup options. They are the early favorites to be ranked No. 1 in the nation pre-season.

But that’s speculation for another day. Right now I’m interested in seeing just how good this team can be and how far it can go. It has played some excruciatingly bad games, Auburn being the worst, but it seems to learn from its mistakes and get better. Youthful resiliency always is a good thing.

Wherever UK finishes in the polls, it’s one of the 15 or so teams that has a legitimate shot to win the national title. It will even get an edge if it can make it to the NCAA Regional that will be played in the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. That would be the next thing best to playing in Rupp Arena.

Because of Louisville’s self-imposed ban from post-season play, the Wildcats could be the only state men’s team playing in the Big Dance. If you don’t want to root for them, that’s your prerogative. All I’ll say is that it’s a team that’s easy to like and get your arms around.

And if you don’t like Tyler Ulis, you just don’t like basketball.

billy-reed

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby


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One Comment

  1. Nick says:

    what a ridiculous article. you offer ANYBODY millions of dollars during their freshman year of college, and nearly all of them would take the money. this is simply a business decision. that money is just as valuable as a college education if said person is smart with the money.

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