Today's hip hopcell phone generation doesn't know history. Tylis Ulis is no exception. But whether he knows it or not, Marian Catholic's 5-foot-8 junior point guard is rapidly writing his own chapter in the history of high school basketball in Illinois.
Until a few days ago, Ulis didn't know who Sam Puckett and Quinn Buckner were. And he was aware of Isiah Thomas only because the Hall of Famer from St. Joseph was his mother's favorite player. But Ulis is being compared to those Chicago area legends.
Ulis is being described as the best under 6-foot player in Illinois since Puckett, a 5-foot-9 guard who put Hales Franciscan on the map in 1967-70, scored more then 2,600 points, led his team to three National Catholic championships, shattered Austin Carr's tournament scoring record and was selected to Parade magazine's All-America team.
"I never saw Sam Puckett play but I have had plenty of people talk to me about him and I have had the pleasure of meeting him," said Marian Catholic coach Mike Taylor, who coached at Hales Franciscan from 1998 to 2002.
"What is special about Tyler is his overall game. There isn't anything he doesn't do well. If people talked about Tyler and Sam in the same breath as a high school player, that would be a tremendous compliment."
How good is Tyler Ulis?
"He is the best point guard in the state regardless of class," said veteran recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.
"That is because he is the quintessential floor general. He is an outstanding ball-handler and passer who plays under control and lets the game come to him. To top everything off, he also is a consistent perimeter shooter with range that extends beyond the three-point arc.
"Most importantly, Ulis constantly dictates the pace of the game. He is just as effective in a half-court tempo as he is going baseline to baseline. He makes everyone around him better and is the only player in the state under 6-foot who can control a game from start to finish."
The Schmidt brothers compare Ulis to Jerome Randle (Hales FranciscanCalifornia) and Maurice Acker (HillcrestMarquette) at the same stage. "He is a high major college recruit all the way," they said.
Taylor takes the comparison game to another level. "I had a coach at our Thanksgiving tournament who said he'd trade four of his kids for Tyler--and his team played in Peoria. I said I wouldn't take that trade. I can't remember seeing a point guard like him in a long time," he said.
"When Isiah Thomas was in this conference, he wasn't a four-time all-conference player. Tyler could be--and he also could be a four-time all-tournament pick at the Big Dipper. To me, he is the best point guard in the state. I'm not sure there are many in the country as good as him.
"He has great leadership capability. He runs a team like Quinn Buckner and has the skill set of Isiah Thomas. If he was 6-foot-3, there would be no question about his ability. If he was playing at Simeon, he would be looked at all over the country with Jabari Parker."
Ulis, who is averaging 27 points, four assists and almost five rebounds per game, scored 26 last Friday as Marian Catholic (8-1) defeated Nazareth 61-48 in an East Suburban Catholic duel. The Spartans will be tested by unbeaten Lemont on Dec 22 at the Crete-Monee Shootout, then open against Rich Central in the 40th McDipper Tournament on Dec. 26 at Rich South.
"We have the makings of the best team I have had," said Taylor, in his 10th year at the Chicago Heights school. "Ulis is the best player I have ever been around as a coach. With him, every time you walk on the floor you have a chance to win. I'm excited about where he can take us."
What excites Taylor most of all is that Ulis has help this season. Last year, Marian Catholic was 15-13 and played four sophomores in the regional final. "I saw this coming," he said.
"What I have seen so far is last year we had Tyler and our kids stood around and watched him play. But this year they are steadily rising up to the level he is playing at. Our production has been better because instead of watching, they are playing it is making a big difference."
Taylor starts three guards--Ulis, 5-foot-7 junior Ki-Jana Crawford (8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4 steals, 2 assists) and 5-foot-10 junior Josh Cohn (10 ppg). In a recent game, he started four players under 5-foot-10. Other starters are 6-foot-2 junior John Oliver (2 ppg, 6 rpg) and 6-foot-5 senior Kevin Phillips (3 ppg, 6 rpg). Chris Austin, a 5-foot-6 sophomore, also is a valuable contributor.
"We rely on our quickness on defense. We have held teams to 36 percent shooting per game," Taylor said. "On offense, we use the dribble drive offense that Kentucky uses. We open up the floor and let our guards go. I did many of the same things at Hales Franciscan with similar personnel.
"Always, in the back of my mind, I recall when Schaumburg beat Eddy Curry and Thornwood in the 2001 state championship. I teach kids about that, how Schaumburg was able to do that with a lot of undersized but quick players."
And then there is Ulis, who understands that he must score at least 25 points per game if Marian Catholic is to be successful. Last year, he averaged 22. That's wasn't enough. This year, he wants to be sure not to leave anything on the floor.
"I know this year I have to score for us to win more games," he said. "Last year, we lost some games when I didn't take enough shots. We have been talking for the last three years how I have to be more aggressive on offense. I haven't put up a number (a goal for points per game) but I know I have to be more aggressive and shoot more for us to win."
But Ulis characterizes himself as a playmaker, not a scorer. Since his favorite player, Allen Iverson, retired, he has idolized 6-foot point guard Chris Paul. "I admire how he plays, how he gets his teammates involved and passes to them in the right spots and takes over the game when he is needed," he said.
"A point guard has to understand the game, control the game, play at different paces, set people up, run the team, play smart. I think that's my game, what I do best, what I will do at the next level. But right now I need to do what my team needs me to do to win. I look for my shot and don't give up open shots."
He admits he would love to wake up some day soon and be 6-foot-3 instead of 5-foot-8. But it probably won't happen. His father is 5-foot-11. Tyler would settle for 6 feet. But he doesn't believe his current size is a disadvantage--not if he is smarter and quicker and plays harder than everyone else on the floor.
"I am a pass-first point guard," he said, describing his style. "I look for my teammates first. When I am needed to score, I can score. I love to play in the pick-and-roll system. I play pretty good off-the-ball defense. I like to push the ball and get up the floor as fast as possible."
Born and raised in Lima, Ohio, he started playing basketball when he was three years old. His family moved to Matteson when he was a freshman. He chose Marian Catholic because his first priority was a good education. At the time, he wasn't aware that Marian Catholic's basketball team had won 20 or more games only twice since the school opened in 1961 and had never qualified for the state finals. It didn't matter then and it doesn't matter now.
"Winning is what excites me most of all," Ulis said. "What I like about this team is we play hard and good together, as a family. We like to be around each other. We will be tested at the McDipper and in the conference. Our edge is defense and quickness. If we play hard on defense, it will make up for our lack of size."
In the meantime, he will graciously accept compliments and gleefully acknowledge the comparisons to Puckett, Buckner and Thomas. And he will ease his way through the recruiting process. He has scholarship offers from DePaul, Iowa, Northern Illinois, Oregon State and Illinois-Chicago. He has interest from Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota.
"I'm just trying to play and let it (recruiting) play out," he said. "I'll see where it all goes. When I was younger, my dream school was North Carolina. My dad always liked them. I grew up watching them on TV. I liked (former North Carolina point guard) Ty Lawson."
Taylor said Ulis has just "scratched the surface" with the recruiting process. "He has a good idea of how to approach it, what is in store for me. He doesn't pay that much attention to it. He knows there is more to come. He studies the coaches and the schools and how he best fits in. He will make a decision after next summer. He fits into a program that opens up the floor and allows him to create in an uptempo style."
Ulis also has time to study history, specifically about Puckett, Buckner and Thomas.
"I never saw them play," he said. "I just know we are similar in size. I saw some NBA highlights. I know Isiah is a Hall of Famer. It feels good to hear that I am being compared to him, with all the success he had in high school, college and the NBA. I know I can make it if I work hard."