Marian Catholic junior Tyler Ulis is the Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 Preps Plus Athlete of the Month for December.

Marian Catholic junior Tyler Ulis is the Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 Preps Plus Athlete of the Month for December. (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune / January 12, 2013)

Travis Walton experienced the evolution of Marian Catholic junior point guard Tyler Ulis' game last summer.

Walton, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 while at Michigan State, spent several hours working out with his cousin at the Lima, Ohio, YMCA.

Ulis finally started to put those tutoring sessions from years past to good use against his mentor. The 6-foot-2 Walton, MSU's all-time leader in games played with 143, had never lost to the 5-8 Ulis during their regular "King of the Court Cut-Throat" sessions.

"Our games are pretty physical," Walton said. "We go at it, especially when it's close to the end. There's no fouls. It's hard ball. It's very hard for me to guard him. He's really quick and shifty and can shoot. I can't check him."

Walton became another victim in what rapidly is becoming the "Year of Ulis," the Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 Preps Plus Athlete of the Month for December.

"He won the last time we played," said Walton, one of three three-year captains in MSU history. "It was the first time he ever got me. I definitely saw the improvement over the summer."

Ulis is averaging 24 points, 4.9 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game and is shooting 41 percent on 3-pointers this season. He first savored beating Walton after countless beatdowns during his regular visits to his mother's home in Lima.

"I was feeling pretty good about myself that day," Ulis said. "I gave Travis a hard time about that. Travis talks a lot of smack. If I can I do good against Travis, I knew that I could go against anybody in high school."

The right track

Born in Southfield, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, Tyler Ulis first established himself on the AAU track circuit throughout Ohio. He dominated in the 800 and 1,500 meters from ages 8-12. But he quit track to focus on his first love — basketball.

"We had probably gotten Tyler about 75 basketballs when he was younger," said his father, James Ulis, a District Store Director for Nike. "He would take and lose his basketball everywhere, half of them in gyms throughout the Midwest."

After his family moved to Matteson before his freshman year, Ulis received a rapid promotion to the varsity.

Marian Catholic coach Mike Taylor decided to start the then-5-3 Ulis in the season opener against Mount Carmel, which was led by point guard Tracy Abrams, now a sophomore starter for No. 12 Illinois.

"I really didn't know who Tracy was at that time," Ulis said. "I guarded Tracy for a couple of plays. He looked at the crowd a couple of times and said something about me being too little."

Staying put

Ulis' reputation, though, started growing at a faster rate than his height. That led to thoughts of a transfer to a more established hoops school, until he had a talk with his father.

"My freshman year I thought about (transferring) a lot," Ulis said. "A lot of people talked to me about transferring. I felt like if I left my team and friends, that would be a coward way."

Coming off a strong summer following his sophomore season, Ulis' confidence has soared. He put on a dazzling exhibition at the McDipper Tournament, leading the No. 5 Spartans (15-1) to their first tourney title in their 37th appearance. Ulis scored 29 points in the championship game against defending champion Bloom to earn the tourney MVP honors.

"Nobody expected us to be winning, so this feels good," Ulis said.

Ulis, who took an official visit to Oregon State last weekend, has scholarship offers from Colorado State, DePaul, Iowa, Loyola, Northern Illinois and Oregon State. His true point guard skills, slick ballhandling, quick hands, shooting and intelligence are drawing interest from numerous high-major Division I schools.