Top-ranked Kentucky can thank the smallest player on its team for helping it survive its biggest challenge of non-conference play.
Five-foot-9 freshman Tyler Ulis provided a much-needed offensive spark in a battle between the nation's two best defenses, leading the Wildcats to a 58-50 road victory over previously undefeated fourth-ranked Louisville.
With starting point guard Andrew Harrison suffering through a nightmarish six-turnover performance against Louisville's relentless ball pressure, Kentucky coach John Calipari turned to Ulis for much of the second half. The Chicago native validated that trust by stabilizing an error-prone offense and delivering a team-high 14 points, all but two of which came in the decisive second half when the Wildcats built a double-digit lead and hung on for a fairly comfortable win.
Another impressive Kentucky victory will only generate more discussion over whether the Wildcats can go undefeated this season, especially since their biggest tests are now behind them. Kentucky (13-0) has now beaten Kansas, Texas and Louisville in non-league play, all of which were ranked in the top 10 when the Wildcats faced them. No SEC team is even in the Top 25 in either poll at this point, though Florida, Arkansas and LSU are each among those receiving votes.
Suffering another defeat against Kentucky has to be extremely frustrating for a Louisville team that hoped to avenge its Sweet 16 loss to the Wildcats from last March.
In its last three-plus seasons, Louisville has amassed an impressive 107-21 record, advanced to two Final Fours and won a national championship, but the one thing the Cardinals have not consistently done is beaten their biggest rivals. They've lost six of seven against Kentucky during the Calipari era, with the only win coming by three points in a season that ended with the Cardinals celebrating an unlikely championship run and the Wildcats bemoaning a stunning opening-round loss in the NIT.
Louisville probably would have had a chance to steal an ugly game in the last few minutes were it not for the heroics of Ulis off the bench. Playing with a gash adjacent to his right eye suffered via a first-half elbow, Ulis hurt Louisville in all facets of the game, from his creativity off the dribble, to his defensive ball pressure to his outside shooting.
He got into the middle of Louisville's aggressive extended zone and made smart choices once he got there. He thrived as a spot-up shooter, sinking two huge second-half threes and giving the Wildcats another means of scoring besides taking into the teeth of the Cardinals' defense where their shot blockers lurked. And he played excellent defense on shot-happy Louisville point guard Chris Jones, holding him to 3 of 15 from the field.
That performance from Ulis was much-needed during a game in which defense reigned at both ends of the court.
Kentucky shot poorly during the first half and committed 18 turnovers in the game. Louisville couldn't take advantage because it couldn't score in the paint against the Wildcats' stable of 7-foot shot blockers, nor did it take advantage of a handful of chances in transition in the first half.
Most of the clean looks Louisville did get against Kentucky came from the perimeter, and that's not a strength for the Cardinals this season. Terry Rozier, Jones and Wayne Blackshear shot a combined 2 of 12 from behind the arc and 10 of 42 from the field as Louisville finished shooting 25.9 percent overall against the nation's best defense.
That defensive formula is what has enabled Kentucky to open with eight straight wins and tighten its grip on the No. 1 ranking even as it's still finding itself on offense. Opposing teams entered Saturday shooting only 30 percent from the field against the Wildcats and scoring .77 points per possession, both the lowest in the nation.
Defense alone will win a lot of games for Kentucky, but the Wildcats will need to keep improving offensively to solidify themselves as a clear-cut title favorite. Ulis' increasing impact as a freshman could play a big role in that.
Kentucky didn't even initially want Ulis until elite point guard prospect Emmanuel Mudiay spurned Calipari and signed with upstart SMU. Calipari then scrambled and won a recruiting battle with Michigan State to land Ulis, a stroke of good fortune that looks even better now that Mudiay is playing professionally in China without ever appearing in a college game.
On a Kentucky roster with nine McDonald's All-Americans and nine rotation players taller than 6-foot-6, Ulis can sometimes be overlooked.
On Saturday, in the crucial moments of Kentucky's biggest test of the season so far, he showed why he may turn out to be as important to the Wildcats' title hopes as any player on the team.
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