By Jamie H. Vaught
Some random March Madness jottings:
--Even though Kentucky's Tyler Ulis (pictured below) was a McDonald's All-American who played at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago, the 5-9 freshman is returning to his home state of Ohio this weekend when the Wildcats face West Virginia Thursday night in NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen in Cleveland. The Wildcat point guard grew up in Lima, which is a 2.5-hour drive from Cleveland.
Ulis has been awesome lately. In five post-season games during the SEC and NCAA tournaments, Ulis -- who leads the squad with an average of 3.8 assists -- is averaging 30.4 minutes and 8.2 points. The lightning-quick playmaker also has a 128-38 assist-to-turnover ratio this season, ranking No. 4 nationally with a ratio of 3.37.
UK coach John Calipari said Ulis, who was recently chosen to the Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team, is better than he had previously thought, adding the rookie is like the spoon in the milkshake, just mixing it all up -- pressing the ball, making passes and creating havoc.
"I didn't know he'd have the impact on games he's had," said Calipari last week. "I know he was a good player. But for someone coming in as a freshman to affect the games he has is amazing, and he's done it on both the defensive end and the offensive end. The freshman class that we brought in with -- Karl (Anthony Towns), Trey (Lyles), Devin (Booker) and Tyler -- is one of the best classes that I've recruited.
"What I mean by that is they're all basketball players. They've got a great feel. They've got mind for the game. They're really all that way. But Tyler, you know, I just told him, 'You're better than I thought you were. I knew you were good. I didn't realize you were this good.' "
Calipari had nothing but praise for Ulis' team-oriented attitude.
"The greatest thing about Tyler is he'll do whatever needs to be done," said the Wildcat boss after Kentucky's 64-51 win over Cincinnati last Saturday. "He wants to play with Andrew (Harrison), and he has no problem with Andrew being the point. I'll play off the ball. I mean, that's what makes him unique. He's not worried about me and let me have this and this is mine. He's not like that. If I said, 'Who do you want in with you?' He'll say, 'Andrew.' So today (there was) a big play. Andrew drives and throws it to him for a three, bang. He and Andrew are like chest bumping. That's what you want to see in this.
"I told them today after the game, you just won 36 (games), never done before in college basketball. Fifty years from now, you'll probably look back and say wow. The parity and the balance and all the other things in college basketball makes this ridiculous. You have guys like Tyler who probably don't realize what they're doing because they're so young. They're 18 and 19 years old.
"But I'm having fun seeing these guys go. They are working through stuff, like things are happening in the game, and they're working through it themselves. That's what you want. You want them to feel empowered."
Also, in a 58-50 victory against the No. 4 Cardinals in Louisville back in late December, Ulis sparked the Cats with a career-high 14 points while never turning the ball over.
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--In the past two weeks, the Big Blue Nation was in full force in Nashville for the SEC Tournament and in Louisville for the NCAA Tournament. And look for them to invade another city -- Cleveland -- this week for the Midwest Regional.
Calipari was asked about the Kentucky fans and he anticipates there will be another big turnout by the Wildcat faithful in Ohio's largest city.
"Our fans, I just use one term to kind of define themselves, but they're crazy," he said. "Our building seats 25,000, and many of the people that will be in Cleveland could not get tickets to our building. So they go to every tournament game. I mean, we had 10,000 people at the early rounds of our conference tournament (in Nashville) because they couldn't get tickets to our rounds. They were like watching the other teams just to be able to say they were a part of it.
"I would say all the restaurant/bar owners are going to be very happy because, if they (fans) can't get into the games, they're going to be sitting right there. I don't think they drink, but they will be there watching those games. You would say, 'Well, they can't get all the tickets.' They somehow figure out how to get tickets. I have no idea how they do it. There will be a lot of blue in Cleveland, no question."
By the way, the Northeast Ohio UK Alumni Club will host a pregame gathering on Thursday, beginning at 4 p.m. at Corner Alley, 402 Euclid Ave., in Cleveland, prior to Kentucky’s contest against WVU.
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--The opening day of the second/third round NCAA tournament in Louisville held last Thursday afternoon was a somber one among the Kentucky media contingent. Ira Combs, a well-liked sports commentator from Perry County, collapsed at the KFC Yum! Center where he was picking up his media credential. He later passed away at a Louisville hospital. He was 61.
After hearing that Combs had just passed away, one media representative said he was too upset to watch or focus on the Thursday afternoon games at the Yum Center. And Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio tweeted that "Ira Combs was a great man who loved this state as much as anyone. He did so much for Eastern Kentucky and was proud of the mountains."
Said UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart in a statement released by the school, “All of us at UK Athletics are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Ira Combs. Ira, a fixture at UK Athletics events for decades, loved this state and its people as much as anyone. Ira’s dedication and hard work in covering high school and collegiate sports in Kentucky were obvious, but his kindness towards the people he came into contact with and worked with will be what we will remember him for the most. Our prayers and thoughts are with Ira and the Combs family.”
Combs, who is the brother of former Cats' Pause publisher and editor Oscar Combs, will be sorely missed by many folks who knew him. He loved UK sports and promoted high school sports in the mountain region. His column appeared in many publications, including KySportsStyle360.com where I also serve as the editor of the recently-launched online magazine. He and his brother, Harold Combs, had a Web site at combsbrotherson-kysports.com.
With Ira Combs no longer sitting on the front row at future UK games at Rupp Arena, things definitely won't be the same and the press row wags sure will miss his folksy comments. He always had something to talk about, especially about the Wildcats as well as sports happenings in the mountains during our pre-game snacks or dinners.
Our deepest sympathies go out to the Combs' family.
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--Two West Virginia stars -- Juwan Staten and Devin Williams -- also will be returning to their home state of Ohio when the 25-9 Mountaineers play UK Thursday night in the Midwest Regional semifinals. A 6-1 senior guard, Staten is from Dayton. Williams, a 6-9 sophomore, hails from Cincinnati.
Just moments after West Virginia stopped Maryland last Sunday, Staten was asked about his memorable encounter with NBA superstar LeBron James during his junior year in high school when his team lost in the state tournament finals despite scoring 28 points.
"You're taking me way back," Staten, a two-time All-Big 12 performer, told the assembled media in Columbus. "He grabbed me close. He told me that he lost a state final his junior year. He told me I was a special player, to keep my head up and remember that moment for the rest of my life. He told me to let that drive me for the rest of my life, never to feel like that again. Those were wise words, and I've tried to live by them. But that was just a lot of encouragement that he gave me."
Entering the Kentucky game, Staten leads the team in scoring with an average of 14.2 points. Following Staten is Williams with 11.6 points. Williams is West Virginia's top rebounder with an 8.2 average.
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--West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who will be 62 in September, is one of the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history. He currently has a career coaching record of 765-311, including an 8-2 mark versus Calipari, his close friend. Their last meeting took place in 2011 when the Wildcats beat WVU 71-63 in the NCAA Tournament. In 2010, Huggins had the upper hand, knocking out John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and the Cats from the Big Dance.
"John and I go back 30, 40 years," commented Huggins this past Sunday. "We know each other really, really well and we've played against each other a bunch of times. Coached against each other a bunch of times."
Calipari, then coaching at Memphis, was one of the first people to visit Huggins at a Pittsburgh hospital when the latter suffered a heart attack.
Huggins, now in his 33rd year as a head coach, said he can't explain his success when coaching against Calipari.
"No. I can't," he said. "He's an absolutely terrific coach. Very few people could do what he did at UMass and then he went into Memphis when they were struggling. .... But I've got great respect for him and for what he's done and what he's been able to accomplish. So, like I said, he'll have them ready. He always has them ready. ... "
Huggins is a two-time Academic All-American who graduated from West Virginia magna cum laude in 1977 and received his master’s in health administration from WVU in 1978.
Like two of his starters, Huggins also is returning to his home state of Ohio this weekend. The coach was the 1972 Ohio Player of the Year while playing for his father, Charles, at Indian Valley South High in Gnadenhutten, Ohio. He first attended Ohio University but transferred to West Virginia after his freshman season.
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--Even though their teams didn't play against each other, Calipari and his mentor, Southern Methodist coach Larry Brown, were at the Yum Center last week during the NCAA tournament. It was Brown, now 74, who helped a young Calipari learn the coaching ropes at Kansas during the early 1980s. Later, after Calipari was fired by NBA's New Jersey Nets, Brown hired him as an assistant for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Brown said he honestly believed Kentucky could make the playoffs if they were in the NBA. Calipari was asked about that and Brown's influence on his career.
"Are they in the same region with us? I don't think they are," smiled Calipari last week. "First of all, the biggest thing I learned from Larry Brown, aside from basketball and how he teaches and coaches, he's as good as they get. He said, 'If you care about the kids, you'll always have a job.' I was 23 years old maybe, 22 years old. I can't remember. It was so long ago, but I do remember that.
"If you care about these kids and you really care, you'll always have a job. You walk away, and you look at him with all that he had accomplished, and his thing was about players playing right and getting better, playing together, teaching them to be a great team. But what he's done at SMU -- I coached against that program. I mean, it's amazing. He just keeps going."
Brown added that he had very close ties with legendary John McLendon, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer who once coached at Kentucky State.
"He offered me my first job at Kentucky State," said the SMU coach. "I played for him (Olympic assistant coach McLendon) on the Olympic team in 1964, and I went on a tour with him to the Iron Curtain countries, and he was like a mentor to me."
Brown's team finished the 2014-15 campaign with a 27-7 mark after dropping to UCLA 60-59 on a controversial goaltending call last Thursday.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.
Tyler Ulis (3) in SEC Tournament action in Nashville. Photo by Jamie H. Vaught