When the brackets came out for the 2016 NCAA Tournament, I was immediately drawn to the games taking place in Des Moines, Iowa, hoping that Cinderella would not interrupt what promised to be an epic point guard matchup in the Second Round if Indiana and Kentucky could dispose of Chattanooga and Stony Brook.
The opening round upsets are part of the beauty of March Madness, but not nearly as wondrous of what promised to be one of the tourney’s most exciting Second Round games if the Hoosiers could advance to play the Wildcats.
Yes, there is a storied history between these two legendary college basketball Blue Bloods. But despite the talent sprinkled throughout the respective rosters, I selfishly wanted to see both of their floor generals, Yogi Ferrell and Tyler Ulis, test their skills against one another.
(Photo Credit: fansided.com)
The backcourt brawl promised two opposing All-Americans running the point, something that one is more likely to see later on in a Final Four or National Championship game.
I woke up this morning with visions of Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson handling the rock against LSU’s Chris Jackson as Slick Rick’s Children’s Story played in the background in 1990, or Kenny going up against Duke’s Bobby Hurley in ACC play, or Hurley and Cal’s Jason Kidd pushing the break in the 1993 tournament as Dr. Dre‘s The Chronic album altered the Hip Hop landscape.
Ulis, who averaged 17 points, seven assists and three rebounds per game, was the sleek engine that made this young Kentucky squad go all year, leading them to a 27-8 record.
The Wildcats took the SEC regular season and conference crowns as the diminutive sophomore floor general from Chicago, via Lima, Ohio, earned the supreme double-double of being named the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year simultaneously. He was also honored as the SEC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Ferrell put up 17 points, six assists and four rebounds per game this season, earning his second consecutive First-team All-Big Ten honor while also being named to the All-Defensive team as well. He was as equally important to the Hoosiers success this year as Ulis was to Kentucky’s, a legit alternative in the argument against Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine as the Big Ten’s best player. He led Indiana to a 15-3 record in conference and a Big Ten title, while also establishing the program’s all time assist record.
To put it mildly, we got a chance to see two of the funkiest, most dynamic little guys in the college game today, and they certainly didn’t disappoint.
Ferrell scored 18 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists in Indiana’s exciting 73-67 win earlier tonight, but Ulis, who coach John Calipari has already announced will move on to the NBA next year, defied the expectations of many who thought that he’d be a four-year college player.
He gave college fans a final awe-inspiring salutation tonight with his magnificent 27-point explosion.
Alabama’s head coach Avery Johnson, who knows a little bit about a small point guard succeeding at the next level, has already stated that Ulis is easily a first round pick with a bright pro future ahead. The 15-year mercurial former NBA floor general with the San Antonio Spurs said that, without a doubt, “[Ulis] is a first-round pick.”
With the Boston Celtics 5-foot-9 floor general Isaiah Thomas playing at an all star level, Ulis has scouts believing that he is every bit the player that Thomas was coming out of college.
“He plays bigger than his size,” Johnson told SB Nation earlier this week. “He takes a charge. He doesn’t back down from anybody. It’s going to be a smooth transition for him to the next level.”
“When he came here, you had everybody tell me, You’ve got a four-year point guard. Now this is how you should do it,'” Calipari told the Louisville Courier Journal a few weeks ago, referring to the detractors of his long history of one-and-done floor generals. “Welp, you were wrong again. I mean, here’s this kid that’s going to be a pro. He’ll be drafted this year, after two years.”
When you examine the advanced metrics, Ulis’ offensive rating and assist rate are better than the celebrated former Calipari phenoms like Derrick Rose, John Wall and Tyreke Evans.
Kentucky has advanced to the Final Four at a remarkable pace recently, four of the past five years to be exact, including last year with Ulis at the helm.
And yet, despite the disappointing early exit for this year’s Wildcats, we couldn’t help but smile as they walked off the court, thinking about the joy that the little man brought with him into the land of the giants.
Kentucky will have another blue chip recruit running the point next year, but Ulis left his mark in a way that we’ll miss. If indeed this was his farewell performance, it was one worthy of a standing ovation.