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Marian Catholic star basketball player Tyler Ulis is surrounded by well wishing cheer leaders as he announced at the Marian football game he will attend college in Kentucky next year. | John Booz/ for the Sun-Times Media
There is no one prouder or happier with Tyler Ulis’ commitment to Kentucky than the Ulis family and those who know them well, particularly in the Marian Catholic community.
But behind that pride is a group of people — a very small group — who shared a common belief in Ulis in the early stages of his career at the south suburban private school.
More than any player in recent memory, there was this undeniable faith by some who believed a 5-8 kid could play with anyone at any level. These people gravitated towards Ulis, pulled for him, rooted for him like he was their own and told anyone who would listen — argued if needed — that Ulis was good enough, size be damned.
Ulis is the player who was questioned early in his high school career about whether he was capable of playing at the Division I level. Soon enough the question turned to whether or not he was a high-major caliber player. But those adamant Ulis backers, the few and far between during his sophomore and junior years, kept wondering why more high-major programs weren’t recruiting him and why he wasn’t ranked among the top 100 players in the country.
Despite his dynamic play and growing adoration from opposing coaches and fans during his sophomore and junior seasons, the high-major offers were slim and he was nowhere to be found in national rankings.
Ulis had become akin to a critically-acclaimed television show with a few avid followers but poor overall ratings. Those followers wondered why more people weren't on board with this pure, natural point guard with a knack for making his team and everyone around him better. Had the national evaluators actually watched this kid?
Then the wall came crumbling down this past spring and summer. While Iowa was the first and only high-major to offer prior to his junior year, Florida was the first high-major power to do so. By the time June arrived, Ulis had garnered multiple high-major offers and had trimmed his list to Iowa, DePaul, USC, Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern and Florida State.
Then a tidal wave of momentum gained even more power and hype. Ulis left his mark and silenced any remaining doubters with his head-turning play at the Nike Peach Jam in July. As he vaulted up national rankings –– he’s now ranked among the top 35 prospects nationally –– additional high-major programs were scurrying to see if they could get involved.
Of all the inquiries and new offers during a crazy month, the Ulis camp let just one school in: Kentucky. And when the Wildcats entered the picture, more critics surfaced.
Kentucky isn’t really recruiting Ulis, some scoffed. They only recruit future one-and-done NBA talent, some said. But John Calipari and the Kentucky machine isn’t making phone calls to prospects in July and bringing them in for visits in August if they’re not interested.
But the critics, the doubters and those who can’t get past Ulis' diminutive size just fuel his fire. He’s believed from the start he can play anywhere, with anyone. That’s part of what makes him special, a breath of fresh air as a basketball player. It's who he is and why he’s had so much success.