This may have been the most unlikely night of all for Perry Ellis to change Kansas basketball team and alter what is possible for the Jayhawks the next three weekends. You dont expect the quiet kid to be so comfortable in a brawl. Freshmen who disappear in tougher games arent supposed to dominate the toughest one so far.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
A record crowd gave KU and Iowa State a standing ovation before they even tipped off, the hype and taunts and controversies from two classic games during the regular season making the third feel like a planned after-school fight. Nobody couldve figured this would be Ellis night to blueprint Kansas national title hopes in what would turn out to be the No. 7 Jayhawks 88-73 win over Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals.
By the time it was over on Friday, the KU fans in the crowd at the Sprint Center had chanted Ellis name at least two different times. He spun and he dribbled and he pushed back and he dunked. Before Friday, he had dunked twice all season. Against Iowa State, he dunked three times.
Ellis scored 23 points and missed just two shots. It was a perfect performance, or at least as close to perfect as you can be in a hectic college basketball game this time of year. TV kept him on the court after the handshakes. His name made it around the world on social media. He waved to the crowd and smiled as he ran off the court.
It was just my turn, he would say.
If this is the new Ellis, then this is a new Kansas team. A much better one. The talent has always been there. One of the facts of KU basketball is a big margin for error. Most places cant live with a five-star recruit scoring five points a game on 42 percent shooting.
At Kansas, they win a ninth consecutive conference title that way and wait for him to grow into an All-America-level talent.
Not that they havent been pushing Ellis. If you watch KU practice, you wont wait long to hear someone tell Ellis to go harder. Its not that he was ever passive, really, just unsure. He became a blue-chip recruit because he was too big for smaller players to guard him and too skilled for the bigger ones.
That tentativeness made him too small to play against bigger players and too slow for the smaller ones.
Talent has never been the problem with Ellis. Even in his worst times he made a total of one basket in five games over a three-week stretch in February people in the KU program maintained he would be a terrific college player. They just didnt know if it would be this year.
They didnt know if he would be ready. They didnt know if their pushing did any good.
I tell him every day: Dunk everything, senior Kevin Young says. And it finally got to him.
Thats oversimplifying things, of course. There are a thousand reasons Ellis played by far his best game at Kansas on Friday. Young hurt his calf and only played 10 minutes. Iowa State isnt great defensively, and focused on McLemore and the perimeter. The Cyclones played behind Ellis, which allowed him to catch and attack. Thats always been a big part of his game.
But there is something to the simple answer, too. Ellis was more aggressive. Before this, he never took more than nine shots. On Friday, he made 10 of 12. Dunking more in one game than he had all season has to mean something.
Thats what he can do, Self says. He played great, but the plays he made are plays I think he can consistently make if he just stays aggressive and stays confident.
And thats the part that makes this so important. The part that makes this the night that may have changed KUs season. Ellis didnt get lucky on Friday. Didnt make shots you cant expect him to make. Didnt cash some lottery ticket.
It will be harder for Ellis going forward now. McLemore scored 33 in the first Iowa State game, so the Cyclones shut him down in the second. Elijah Johnson scored 39 in the second Iowa State game, so the Cyclones harassed him in the third. Even on short notice, you have to figure Kansas State will adjust its scouting report to slow KUs new emerging star.
But this was always whats possible for Ellis. The day he signed with KU, Self compared him to Wayne Simien. Ellis was a program-changer, a versatile and powerful player with a chance to have his jersey in the rafters someday. Before Friday night, many in and around the program thought theyd have to wait until next year to see it.
Thats all changed now, and so might the next three weeks.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.