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Kentucky's 2 most unlikely recruits are dragging the Wildcats back from the dead

Tyler Ulis is cooking, Derek Willis is on fire and Kentucky is back in business.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky began this season with a sparkling No. 1 ranking next to its name in the preseason polls, but almost nothing about John Calipari's new team was similar to the one that decimated the sport a year ago. In the simplest terms, Kentucky lost its entire starting lineup and top seven scorers, which included three NBA lottery picks led by all-everything big man Karl-Anthony Towns.

The sheer volume of roster turnover was jarring by itself, but the stylistic changes presented an entirely new hurdle. Last year's Wildcats smothered all hope with size and defense, powered by a frontline bigger than any in the NBA. Now Kentucky would have to get it done starting three de facto point guards with no true back-to-the-basket scorer or rim protector.

That Kentucky still got the benefit of the doubt as preseason No. 1 says everything you need to know about the trust Calipari has built since arriving in Lexington. But it didn't take long before the holes in Kentucky's roster were exposed and coach Cal realized his new team simply couldn't compete playing the same brand of basketball as last season's 38-1 juggernaut.

Without Towns and Dakari Johnson bullying opposing teams in the paint, Kentucky didn't have the inside scoring required to succeed by continuing to throw the ball into the post. You might think a smaller, faster team would subsequently find easier driving lanes to the rim, but there was just one problem: Kentucky was still only starting two reliable shooters.

Calipari has always been slow to embrace the three-point revolution that's swept through every level of the game. In his seven seasons at Kentucky, Calipari teams have scored more than 23 percent of their points via the three ball just once. The Anthony Davis-led 2012 national champs scored only 21.8 percent of their points on threes (No. 307 in the country) and last year's powerhouse was even worse in that area (21 percent).

Right before Kentucky suffered its third loss of the season to LSU, the current iteration of the Wildcats was taking that three-point aversion to its illogical conclusion. Kentucky was getting just 16.5 percent of their points from the three ball, the third lowest percentage in the country. A team without the overwhelming size advantage the 'Cats were accustomed to had to make a change. And so Calipari did.

Today, Kentucky is tied for the lead in the SEC, ranked No. 9 by KenPom and is back up to No. 14 in the polls after bottoming out at No. 23. What's changed? Calipari inserted sweet shooting power forward Derek Willis in the starting lineup and it's made everyone's life easier, especially sophomore Tyler Ulis, who is now playing like one of the best point guards in the country.

ulis

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Willis and Ulis look nothing like the typical Calipari recruits. Willis is the ultra-rare three-star recruit to earn a scholarship from Calipari out of nearby Mount Washington, Ky. Ulis was a McDonald's All-American, but at 5'9 and 160 pounds, he hardly resembles the freak-of-nature point guards Calipari is used to bringing in.

Willis lacks great athleticism and Ulis lacks size, but the two do have one thing in common: they are both skilled.

How badly did Kentucky need Willis' shooting? Consider that outside of Jamal Murray, Ulis and Willis, the Wildcats don't have a player on the roster who has made more than five threes this season. Willis has been on fire (41.7 percent from three) and his impact extends beyond made shots. He's opened up a lot of space around the basket that wasn't there when Kentucky was starting two traditional big men alongside non-shooter Isaiah Briscoe.

Ulis has been the biggest beneficiary. Over his last 10 games, Ulis is averaging 20.8 points, 7.5 assists and 1.8 turnovers per game on 51 percent shooting. His three-point shot has also gotten back on track: after hitting 43 percent of his threes as a freshmen, he was hovering around 30 percent for most of this season, in part due to an elbow injury. But he's been better in SEC play, shooting 36.5 percent from deep while growing into an all-around weapon that ranks top 20 in the country in offensive rating, per KenPom.

Ulis has also been crucial in getting Murray, Kentucky's other offensive headliner, cooking this season. Murray has made 76 threes and Ulis has assisted on 50 percent of them so far. Briscoe is the second leading assist man on the Murray's threes and he's only at 27 percent.

For as gaudy as Ulis' numbers are, his impact extends beyond the metrics. After Calipari was ejected less than three minutes into a tough road test at South Carolina on Saturday, Ulis basically coached the team by himself. "I never touched offense," assistant-in-charge Kenny Payne said. "I didn't have to. Tyler Ulis ran the offense. Every now and then, I may have interjected something, but at the end of the day it was his show."

Ulis has also been credited with convincing Calipari to stop pounding the ball down low to freshman Skal Labissiere. Calipari had success turning a jump-shooting big into a low post monster last year with Towns, but Labissiere lacks the strength necessary to make the transition. Thanks to Ulis' suggestion, Labissiere is now getting more pick-and-pop jumpers and less touches down low.

Kentucky's lack of reliable big men is still worrisome, but there's no denying the team is in better shape now than a month ago. Make no mistake: If these Wildcats make a run, it's because Ulis is playing incredible ball and Willis' presence is having an advantageous domino effect on the rest of the lineup.

This doesn't look like your traditional Calipari powerhouse, but there's reason to believe the Wildcats can still compete with any team in the country. All they had to do was think on their feet and play to their strengths.