KU’s Ellis making push – quietly, of course – to be named Big 12 Player of the Year
LAWRENCE, Kan. — He lacks the barrel chest of Rico Gathers, the polish of Monte Morris, the electricity of Buddy Hield, the ice of Juwan Staten. Fine. But is it fair to punish him for it?
Perry Ellis is the Tim Duncan of the Big 12: Wise beyond his years, solid as a bedrock, reliable as a down coat and boring as all hell. And if Kansas (23-6, 12-4 conference) wraps up the league title Tuesday night with a victory against West Virginia (22-7, 10-6), the man you call Captain Yawn just might be your Big 12 Player of the Year.
Or, to put it another way: Where would league title No. 11, as in 11 in a row, be without him?
"He’s been one of the best players that Kansas has seen," teammate Kelly Oubre said of Ellis, who notched his seventh double-double — 28 points, 13 boards — and third straight game of 20-plus points to help the Jayhawks outlast fading Texas on Saturday, 69-64. "And that’s expected out of him because it’s his third year. He has a lot of heart and he plays with a lot of pride for the university and he has been showing that lately, that he’s been working hard in the gym and in practice, and it’s translating into the game. He’s been great."
Since Valentine’s Day, the Jayhawks have won three and dropped two, February’s dog days taking their usual bite out of a Bill Self team fighting through the back nine. But consider this, too: KU’s average margin of victory in those wins was a mere eight points; its margin of defeat, just four.
Since Valentine’s Day, Ellis, the 6-foot-8 junior, has accounted for 32.1 percent of KU’s total points and 35.2 percent of all the Jayhawks’ field-goal makes, all while shooting .575 (42 for 73) from the floor. Over the past nine tilts, his average line looks like this: 18.7 points, 8.5 rebounds — and all without a post partner of any consistency to speak of, all as pretty much the only reliable scoring option down low.
"We’ve ridden Perry as hard as we’ve ever ridden anybody," Self said. "He’s been great. He’s been playing as well as anybody in the country right now."
Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell, since Feb. 14: Five games, 13.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg.
Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky, since Feb. 14: Four games, 19.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg.
Ellis, since Feb. 14: Five games, 22.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg.
Boring? Boring, my patootie.
"It’s in my head," Ellis said when asked to explain his recent surge, the one hoisting him closer to fans’ — and critics’ — expectations. "Just thinking to myself that I can do it.
"And that’s what I have been doing. I visualize myself doing it and go out and do it."
Without the services of post man Cliff Alexander — more on that in a minute — No. 34 was asked to do more than ever Saturday, and do it against the tallest and possibly most talented lineup, inch for inch, in the Big 12.
Another plodding first half — 31 points, only 10 makes from the floor — was saved by Ellis’ 14 points and six boards at break, helping to keep the hosts afloat against a desperate Longhorns side that could be kissing its NCAA dreams, and coach Rick Barnes, goodbye.
After Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor’s two free throws pushed Bevo’s lead to 50-44 with 9:51 to go in the contest, it was Ellis carrying the water again, netting six points and a block over the next four minutes during a 12-4 KU run.
"He’s making a statement," Oubre said.
"He’s been great for the last month," Self said of the junior out of Wichita, KU’s leading scorer (14.5 per game) and rebounder (7.2). "You’ve got to be able to ride a guy (like that) during the postseason."
And during the stretch run, too.
Especially in this league. Especially this winter.
In a wild, anything-goes Saturday in America’s wildest college basketball circuit — Kansas State stunned No. 12 Iowa State, No. 19 Baylor stomped No. 20 West Virginia, No. 16 Oklahoma almost fell to TCU, Oklahoma State got ambushed by Texas Tech — UT-KU nearly joined the fray of insane results. A foul not being called on Taylor’s whirling drive with 6.2 seconds left, when replays showed he may have tripped over Ellis and might also have been slapped by him, only fueled the disgust among the anti-Rock Chalk crowd.
As it was last weekend against the Horned Frogs, and at K-State before Stormy Monday stole the headlines, this one was a slugfest, a slog.
The Jayhawks were oh-for-their-first-seven from beyond the arc, and the first 3-point make didn’t come until there was 6:32 left in the contest. Midway through the second half, down six, Self even switched to a 3-2 zone for a few possessions, a gambit he usually saves only for tournament surprises or out of desperation. And the cat-quick Taylor continued to knife through the Jayhawks like they were hot butter anyway.
Some six minutes into the second period, KU had drained 12 field goals on 38 attempts — and were an abysmal 12 for 31 inside the arc. The ‘Horns had nine blocks and wound up finishing with 14.
"If you look at it, we got 33 points from our bigs," Self noted. "But let’s call it like it is."
Self’s best-scoring "big," freshman power forward Cliff Alexander, was declared a scratch from the roster about two hours before the 4 p.m. tip — players had known since around noon-ish — because of what a school news release called an "eligibility" issue, prompted by an alert from the suits at the NCAA.
"We knew that there was a potential issue earlier this week," Self explained. "And then, as a precautionary measure — who knows what that means — we were told that we should, and we made the decision to, hold him (out) until we get it resolved."
Considering the Jayhawks, by all published accounts, managed to keep one-and-done star Andrew Wiggins above board in what essentially was a 10-month pit stop last winter en route to the pros, it doesn’t seem likely KU is playing intentional shenanigans. It’s probably also worth noting that Alexander’s alma mater, Chicago Curie (Ill.) High, was investigated for academic improprieties last year and forced to forfeit games. And during his remarks, Self made a point to stress that it was "not a KU situation, but a Cliff situation" more than once.
"Obviously, something has come up," Self said of Alexander, the Jayhawks’ leader in blocks (37) and one of the few natural rim protectors on a roster that’s generally bereft of them. "And I don’t know what that something is. Hopefully, I’ll find out and there can be a resolution soon so we can get him back out on the court."
There is a chance that this, too, will pass, though it may not pass smoothly for Alexander, whose play has gone the opposite track of Ellis’ over the past fortnight. And if you had Big Cliff as a 50-50 shot to come back for Year 2 in your pool, you’d have to think that percentage is probably closer to 65-35 in favor of the pros now. Time will tell. Always does.
In the meantime, there are wagons to be circled, mantels to be filled. After the listless showing and court-storming chaos in Manhattan, KU players had an hourlong meeting Tuesday in which they aired their feelings. Mostly, they talked about the chain of Big 12 rings, the desire to push 10 to 11.
But if the Jayhawks wanted Saturday’s contest badly, Barnes needed it urgently. The ‘Horns (17-12, 6-10) came into Lawrence with a 1-11 mark versus the RPI top 50, a 3-7 record in their past 10 and a 6-6 mark outside of Austin. The buzzards are already circling in burnt orange country again, as a gifted lineup that includes Taylor and a potential lottery pick in forward Myles Turner is in danger of locking down home court in the NIT.
"We just need to win a game," Barnes said. "This is just all about (the fact) we need to win games."
The Big 12’s perennial coach-on-the-hot-seat also was effusive in his praise of Ellis, though in doing so, he also referred to him as a senior. Twice. Can’t anybody get a little respect around here?
"You have to be impressed with the way he’s improved," Barnes said. "But I think being a senior and being in a lot of big games, a lot of big minutes, you would expect that from him."
Fine. Whatever. The point stands: The bigger the stage for the Jayhawks, the broader Ellis’ shoulders have become. And if that doesn’t describe a player of the year in this league, given this grind, then what the hell does?