As the calendar turned to March, Kansas coach Bill Self began to do a little math in his head.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
His team’s bench production, to put it bluntly, had been inconsistent and inefficient for most of the season. And as he began to think about his playing rotations for the NCAA Tournament, one thing seemed certain. His starters were going to be playing a lot.
By Saturday night, after KU’s 70-54 victory over Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament title game, Self said his view had changed — and quite rapidly. Freshman forward Perry Ellis punctuated a breakout weekend in Kansas City with 12 points and six rebounds in 14 minutes. And sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe had added 12 points on four three-pointers and two assists in 19 minutes.
“I go from, ‘(Gosh darn), we gotta play our starters 35 minutes, to now, we’re better when we went to the bench,’ ” Self said. “I thought that was important.”
Ellis’ transformation may have been the most important — and surprising. Entering the weekend, Ellis was averaging close to five points per game and struggling to finish inside. In three games at the Sprint Center, he averaged 14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds while being selected to the all-tournament team. He also knocked down just his second three-pointer of the year on Saturday.
“He’s been terrific,” Self said. “And what he did today, it felt like every time it left his hand the last two days, it was going in. And they weren’t just all bunnies. (He was) making threes, making 15-footers, making all his free throws.”
Ellis had been thrown into major playing time on Friday when senior forward Kevin Young suffered a lower-leg injury during KU’s semifinal victory over Iowa State. He responded with a career-high 23 points, but Young was back in the starting lineup on Saturday against K-State.
That meant Ellis played just 14 minutes, but he combined with Young to record 21 points and 15 rebounds at the power-forward spot.
“In practice leading up to this tournament,” Ellis said, “I just felt like I was getting better and better.”
Last season, while KU made its run to the NCAA championship game, the Jayhawks’ bench basically amounted to senior guard Conner Teahan and Young, a juco transfer. During the NCAA tourney, the bench accounted for just 20 percent of the Jayhawks’ playing time.
It looked as if that would be the case again this season. But after KU’s loss at Baylor last Saturday, Tharpe, Ellis and freshman forward Jamari Traylor talked about how they could help the starters down the stretch.
“We knew that (it was) ourselves more than anything,” Tharpe said, “We knew that we needed to help.”
In the confines of March basketball, with long television timeouts and high-pressure situations, benches always tend to get shorter. But if nothing else, Ellis and Tharpe proved that they can be trusted to make plays in the coming weeks.
“If they play the way they played the rest of the way,” senior guard Travis Releford said, “we’re gonna be tough to beat.”
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.