Tyler Ulis

Tyler Ulis never weighed more than 150 pounds during his high school career, which culminated in McDonald's All-American honors. Entering his freshman season of varsity ball at Marian Catholic High in Chicago, he was just 5-2, 115 pounds.

Tyler Ulis

Opposing fans barked: "You need to be at home in bed" and "What do you want for Christmas?"

Asked about those taunts now, the 5-9 Kentucky point guard shrugs them off. But those close to him say that it drives him, that he has a chip on his shoulder for every slight about his height.

"He carries it all the time," said Mike Taylor, Ulis' coach at Marian Catholic. "He loves to prove people wrong."

Ulis has proven himself on college basketball's biggest stage, posting a 17-to-4 assist-to-turnover differential during the 2015 NCAA tournament for the 38–1 Wildcats.

And now the sophomore, who was named to the preseason All-SEC First Team, is running the show for one of the most talented teams in the country.

"He's a skilled player with a great feel for the game," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "You see his leadership ability on the court."

Ulis not only led all players with 18 points but also had six assists, two steals and zero turnovers during a 74-63 victory against Duke on Nov. 17.

Tyler Ulis

"God was good to him," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He didn't give him height, but he gave him a heart that's five times bigger than most people's."

Though many smaller guards succeed because of their speed, Ulis excels because of his floor game, sensing when to attack off the dribble, pass the ball or pull it out.

Ulis' tight handle and passing skills come from his parents, 6-0 James Ulis and 5-6 Kelly Reed, both of whom played point guard in high school in Ohio.

Tyler was a youth football quarterback and a nationally decorated middle-distance runner, but with basketball as his first love, he idolized one of the best diminutive point guards of all time. He sported Allen Iverson's jerseys and had the Answer's posters in his room. It's why Ulis wears No. 3, Iverson's number during his prime with the 76ers.

Ulis was a two-time all-state player in Illinois, but Calipari didn't start recruiting him to the Bluegrass State until the July before his senior year. He targeted Ulis once he was unable to lure Emmanuel Mudiay.

Tyler Ulis

Now with the Nuggets, the 6-5 Mudiay, who committed to SMU before deciding to play in China, was more along the lines of prototypical Kentucky point guards like 6-3 John Wall, 6-3 Brandon Knight and -- last year's starter -- 6-6 Andrew Harrison.

Many, however, thought Ulis, who played 23.8 minutes per game last season in the team's platoon system, ran the Final Four team even better than Harrison. Both averaged 3.6 assists, but Ulis had fewer turnovers (his assist-to-turnover ratio ranked first in the SEC and third in the country) and shot better from the field (40.6 percent).

Kentucky has added two more point guards to the 2015-16 starting lineup -- ballyhooed freshmen 6-3 Isaiah Briscoe and 6-4 Jamal Murray. The 19-year-old Ulis, though, is the main ballhandler and the only Wildcat who played all 40 minutes in the win against Duke.

"It's more my team this year," Ulis said.

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Ulis is used to playing against bigger opponents.

At the age of 6, Ulis attended a basketball camp in Chicago's south suburbs and was shepherded to the toy Nerf hoop along with the other preschoolers and kindergartners. He pleaded until staffers let him play on the 10-foot goal with the third graders.

Tyler Ulis

He ended up winning the camp's MVP honors.

"When he was younger and he dominated," James said, "he was still the smallest or one of the smaller kids on the court, but you always saw his skill."

With the Duke game tied just over four minutes in, Ulis skillfully found Murray for a three-pointer, rebounded Isaac Humphries' block off a Grayson Allen shot and then scored a layup on the ensuing break. Ulis had a direct hand in five consecutive points.

Later in the same half, showing both his savvy and his highlight-making ability, he caught the Duke defense napping and threw an alley-oop pass to forward Marcus Lee.

"It gets the team going," Ulis said, "and a lot of energy in the gym."

He was such a good passer that -- going into his freshman year -- a knock was that he was too reluctant a shooter. He ended up deftly picking his spots, leading last year's Final Four squad in three-point accuracy (42.9 percent) while connecting on 33 of them.

Tyler Ulis

More than his shooting or his passing, Ulis prides himself on his court awareness.

"I'm one of the smartest players on the court," Ulis said. "My best attribute is my IQ."

Duke guard Matt Jones, who defended him at times during the November contest, concurred while praising his leadership.

"He was always in communication with his team," Jones said. "You could see how in control he was. Every play he was just always talking to them, making sure everybody was in the place that they needed to be."

Ulis guarded both the 6-5 Jones and point guard Derryck Thornton, among other players, hounding them when they crossed halfcourt. He was also part of a defensive effort, which held Allen, the hero of the 2015 national championship game, to 2-of-11 shooting.

Despite the staggering height disadvantage, Ulis, who is listed at 160 pounds, posted up 6-9 Duke forward Brandon Ingram and drew a foul. He also stole the ball from 6-9 post player Amile Jefferson, who then reached in for a foul.

Tyler Ulis

"He gets underneath people," Taylor said. "He irritates the hell out of 'em."

Louisville guard Chris Jones elbowed him during Kentucky's road victory against the rival Cardinals last season. Blood streamed down from just below Ulis' right eye. After receiving three stitches, he scored 12 second-half points -- part of his team-high 14 -- to lead the Wildcats.

He also gutted through shin splints during the entire 2014-15 campaign. After the Final Four run, Ulis took a month and half off to rest his injury. Then he ate multiple meals a day and worked out intensely -- focusing on bench and leg press -- to add seven pounds of muscle while also increasing his flexibility.

"His body will able to withstand a lot more this year," Taylor said.

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Under Calipari, Kentucky's talented players have bolted to the NBA with years of eligibility remaining. But will Ulis, who doesn't fit the typical mold of a Kentucky or NBA player, follow that path or will he be the rare Wildcat player who stays through his senior year?

"I don't think he feels like he's a four-year player unless he wants to be," James said, "but also I don't mind if he does. If he has to, that's not a disappointment."

Tyler Ulis

In the past four NBA drafts, Kentucky has had 16 players selected. Ten were freshmen, and only two were upperclassmen.

"His dream is to play in the NBA," Taylor said. "The tough part for him is going to be that all his friends that he plays with at Kentucky are leaving each year, and so I'm sure he wants to leave too."

However, only three contributors on the NBA level -- Ty Lawson, Phil Pressey and Isaiah Thomas -- are listed as under six feet tall. If Ulis' hardcourt dreams don't work out -- or perhaps after they do -- he could enjoy a solid post-basketball career.

James works as a retail district director for Nike stores, and Tyler, who is interested in business management, could enter his father's line of work. James' Nike job boosted Tyler's athletic career because basketball equipment was always readily available, and the family has a loyalty to the brand.

Tyler Ulis

"Of course, I wanted him to go to a Nike school," James said. "But it's all about what's best for him."

Ulis saw Kentucky, a Nike school, as his best option. He quickly accepted Calipari's scholarship offer, spurning Michigan State -- the school his cousin Travis Walton attended and also a Nike program -- among others, in large part because of Kentucky's track record of producing successful NBA players.

"I want to be in that position eventually," Tyler said. "I don't really have a game plan -- just wait it out and see, just focus on the season."

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