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Tyler Ulis Chooses Kentucky, Not Iowa

Fran's white whale chooses Big Blue.

Did we ever have a chance when this guy got involved?  Probably not.
Did we ever have a chance when this guy got involved? Probably not.
Andy Lyons

The scuttlebutt on the interwebs, from "sources" to so-called experts, had been leaning this way for a while.  Really, ever since John Calipari handed Tyler Ulis a golden ticket scholarship offer from Kentucky in late July.  But on Friday, on a live webstream and dressed in a gladiator-style outfit, Tyler Ulis made it official: he's headed to Kentucky.

So why Kentucky?  The reasons probably won't surprise you:

"I'll be going to the University of Kentucky," Ulis said, to no one's surprise. "Kentucky is a top basketball program ... and it'll help me out working hard every day, playing against the top-flight competition and with the top-flight competition. And Coach Cal (John Calipari) does a good job developing players."

Kentucky can promise recruits two things with a high degree of confidence: the ability to seriously contend for an NCAA championship and the ability to get drafted (probably fairly highly) in the NBA Draft.  Not everyone likes Calipari's approach or the fact that he's essentially transformed Kentucky into the best NBA D-League team in the country... but it works.  His track record at sending players to the NBA is virtually unsurpassed and since Cal has been at UK, they've usually been in the thick of the national title chase (last year's shocking NIT trip will likely prove to be a one-off aberration).

Ulis isn't the prototypical Calipari PG; he's unquestionably short (a pretty legit 5-9, apparently), while most Calipari point guards at Memphis and Kentucky have tended to be quite a bit taller:

Derrick Rose is 6-foot-4; Tyreke Evans is 6-foot-6; John Wall is 6-foot-4; Brandon Knight is 6-foot-3; even Marquis Teague is 6-foot-2.

Calipari was after a guy just like that, Emmanual Mudiay, a 6-foot-4 specimen with the strength, aggression, and ability to penetrate that Calipari covets in his point guards.  Mudiay was widely expected to head to Kentucky... but last month he took an abrupt left turn, choosing to play for hometown SMU and legendary coach Larry Brown.  Unfortunately, Larry Brown's gain may have been Iowa's loss.  Mudiay was Calipari's primary target at Kentucky; when he headed elsewhere, Calipari & Co. moved down their list and turned their full attention to Ulis.  And when a program with the glitz, glamour, and career development prospects of Kentucky starts wooing you, well, it's hard to say no.

I certainly can't fault Ulis for choosing Kentucky, as much as I (obviously) wish he had chosen Iowa.  Kentucky is one of the absolute Cadillac programs in the sport and, unfortunately, they offer things that Iowa simply can't match right now.  Kentucky can offer deep runs in the NCAA Tournament and legitimate chances to win an NCAA title, almost every year.  Iowa hasn't won an NCAA Tourney game in over a decade.  Calipari's track record at sending his players to the pros is insanely good; Iowa hasn't had a player drafted by the NBA since Adam Haluska was a second-round pick and Fran McCaffery has (to the best of my knowledge) never had a player selected in the NBA Draft.  Until Iowa is able to change the facts on points like this, persuading elite talent to sign on the dotted line here is going to be a challenge.

Ulis is unlikely to be one of the (many many) one-and-done insta-stars that make a pit stop in Lexington on their way to the NBA Draft Lottery, if for no other reason than the NBA isn't beating down the door of too many 5-foot-9 kids.  Some analysts see Ulis' arrival -- and the likelihood that he won't be bouncing to the NBA immediately -- as a potential boon for Kentucky: there's something to be said for not having to replace your floor general every single year, after all.  Is there a chance that Ulis will find himself sitting behind the latest 6-foot-5 mega-prospect PG that Calipari lures to Kentucky in a year or two?  I suppose.  I doubt Calipari is going to change the way he recruits anytime soon.  But the way Kentucky recruits (or prefers to recruit) is unlikely to come as a surprise to Ulis; he's surely aware that he wasn't Kentucky's top choice this year and it would surprise me if he wasn't cognizant of the reality that Calipari is likely to keep hunting down elite prospects, even at his own position.

In any event... it hurts to lose Ulis to Kentucky.  While I suggested a few paragraphs above that Mudiay's commitment to SMU (and, more crucially, his non-commitment to Kentucky) may have sealed Iowa's fate in re: Ulis, it certainly wasn't a sure thing that he would have chosen Iowa over Michigan State, where he had some significant family ties and who offered a lot of the same things that Kentucky can offer (solid NBA development, pretty regular NCAA title contention).  But Iowa was very much in the running at the end and certainly could have been his choice, especially if you're inclined to believe Michael Stainbrook, an editor for the Prep Sports section at The Chicago Tribune:

Iowa's effort in recruiting Ulis certainly can't be faulted.  McCaffery and his staff identified him as a highly promising talent early in the recruiting process, made him a top priority for this class, and pursued him with the same dogged zeal that he brought to the recruitment sagas of Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury.  Unfortunately, this story didn't have the same happy ending that those stories did.  Still, it's hard to fault Fran's effort or find fault with anything he did.  Ulis and his father were both full of praise for McCaffery:

"We’ve known (Hawkeyes coach) Fran (McCaffery) for a long time, and I call him my friend," James Ulis said. "He’s a great guy and Tyler has really gotten to know him. You can’t just throw that out the window. And the same with (Michigan State coach Tom) Izzo.

Fran put together the best sales pitch he could; sadly, it's hard to win when someone else comes along with a better pitch, even if he didn't put in as much time and energy as you did.

The loss of Ulis is painful both for what he could have symbolically represented and for his actual ability as a player. Ulis would have been the biggest get for Iowa in several years, a legit top-40 (or better, depending on your recruiting service of choice) prospect from the recruiting hotbed of Chicago.  Who knows how many or what kind of doors that may have opened for Iowa with other top prospects or within the Chicago recruiting scene.  Going head-to-head with powerhouse programs like Michigan State (and, now, Kentucky) and emerging as the winner for Ulis' services would have been one hell of a feather for Fran's cap, too.  Alas, that moment will have to wait for another prospect. I think there's still some pleasure to be derived from the fact that McCaffery even had Iowa in the mix for a talent like Ulis, especially given the competition, considering where Iowa was just a few short years ago.  But the satisfaction of just being in contention is pretty minor, much like Iowa's ability to be "in contention" for an NCAA Tournament berth last year.  We're nearing the sell-by date on moral victories for the Iowa basketball program -- if we're not already past it.

As an actual player, UIis' recruitment by Iowa always struck me as a bit curious.  He was certainly a good prospect (and he only got better as he tore up recruiting camp after recruiting camp this past summer), but he also seemed to play at a position (PG) that wasn't a huge need for Iowa.  After all, when Ulis arrives in college in 2014, Iowa figures to still have Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons as juniors.  Would Ulis have arrived at Iowa and stepped in as an immediate starter?  Perhaps.  Or maybe McCaffery sees one or both of those players as shooting guards.  Maybe he thought Ulis' skills would be a better fit for exactly what he wants in a point guard.  Maybe (likely) he just couldn't turn down the ability to add a very talented player to his roster, positional need be damned.  Whatever the case, it's clear he wanted Ulis very much, and after reading accounts like this, it's hard not to feel at least a twinge of sadness at what could have been:

In a game in The Eight, a tournament organized in Las Vegas by NBA star Chris Paul, Ulis executed a continual series of staggering moves, none more delightful than a bounce pass that resulted in a teammate's blown layup.

See, it wasn't just any bounce pass. Ulis began the play with the ball at the foul line, then made a quick dash down the left side of the lane before jumping into the air to his right, moving toward the center of the lane as he flew. A defender concerned Ulis would launch a teardrop shot leaped up from the baseline to discourage a shot, which is exactly what Ulis expected. That left an open teammate, Tyler Wideman, on the left block.

Ulis cut loose a sizzling two-hand bounce pass that looked like it had been fired by Justin Verlander, and given the tight quarters it appeared to be destined to wind up tumbling into the emptiness beyond the baseline. But Ulis had placed just the right amount of spin on the ball, and instead it traveled directly up to Wideman's shoulder, where he caught it easily and turned it into a layup. It didn't even matter that the shot was missed. If you saw this sequence, you'd be talking about it for weeks.

Remember how fun Iowa's offense could be at times with an honest-to-god point guard like Bryce Cartwright running the show?  Now imagine a guy like that... but better.  And imagine him surrounded by better talent, given the upgrade Fran has done to the overall roster since he arrived.  Yeah, that sounds like a fun team, as well as a potentially very dangerous team for the rest of the Big Ten.  Alas.

With or without Ulis, the Iowa basketball program will likely be fine.  The momentum is building, the talent is improving, and Fran's eye for talent can hardly be disputed.  We didn't get Ulis and that sucks, but the future is still bright for Iowa hoops.