The possession that changed this Kansas basketball season played out in less than five seconds.
It was a busted play out of a timeout. An opposing guard gaining a full head of steam. A collision in the lane and three bodies falling to the floor. It was, to put it one way, the sort of play that happens a dozen or more times during a college basketball game.
On the night of March 3, as Kansas trailed West Virginia 36-22 in the final minutes of the first half, Mountaineers guard Tarik Phillip controlled the ball near midcourt and jetted toward the rim. Phillip crashed into Kansas big man Landen Lucas, who stumbled to his left, his backside landing on — and buckling — the right knee of forward Perry Ellis.
As Ellis grimaced in pain, clutching his right knee, Allen Fieldhouse slipped into a moment of quiet.
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“I didn’t know what was going on,” Ellis would say later, “or what was happening.”
Later that night, Ellis was diagnosed with a sprained right MCL (medial collateral ligament) in his right knee and join his teammates on the floor for a postgame celebration after a frantic comeback clinched the outright Big 12 title. It was in that moment, Ellis says, the scariest night of his basketball career. He had never been seriously injured — no broken bones, no torn ligaments, not even any severe sprains. Then he was hobbling onto a ladder, snipping at a piece of nylon net, wondering about the future.
More than two weeks later, Ellis is still immersed in the healing process. He returned to the floor last weekend at limited strength, playing in two games at the Big 12 Tournament. But as No. 2 seed Kansas prepares to open the NCAA Tournament against No. 15 New Mexico State on Friday in Omaha, Neb., the health of Ellis’ right knee remains a major concern.
Ellis will play, and he believes he will be effective — but how far can Kansas go if its leading scorer is at less than 100 percent?
“This is when it really matters,” Kansas guard Wayne Selden said. “And we really want Perry’s knee to get back to being 100 percent. But even if his knee’s not 100 percent, I just want his mind to be 100 percent.”
If the Jayhawks can handle New Mexico State, they could face a round-of-32 matchup with No. 7 seed Wichita State, which would present a unique set of emotions for Ellis. He grew up in Wichita, not far from the Shockers’ Koch Arena. He was recruited heavily by Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall but politely said no and opted for Kansas.
For Ellis, this makes the next couple of days of recovery all the more critical. He has spent the last two weeks working through exercises that strengthen the muscles around his MCL. Kansas coach Bill Self believes his return to the floor in the Big 12 Tournament was crucial for confidence reasons. (“He needed to get hit,” Self said.) But it was also apparent that Ellis was not close to 100 percent. Wearing a brace on his right knee, Ellis averaged nine points and 7.5 rebounds in two games: a victory over Baylor and a loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 title game.
“He’s not close to where he needs to be,” Self said Sunday. “So this next four days are real important for him to get that bounce back and that fire back in his jump and explosion.”
Three days later, after arriving at the Kansas team hotel in Omaha on Wednesday afternoon, Self said Ellis had practiced Tuesday andWednesday and was showing signs of measured progress.
“Perry looks really good in practice,” Self said. “He’s getting his explosion back.”
Ellis, in his third season, has never been reliant on gaudy athleticism. His game is one of subtle angles and crafty spins, of myriad pivot and soft touch. His teammates like to call Ellis’ best move “the blender” for the way it can spin an opponent in circles. Last weekend, Ellis says, his normal array of moves was limited in scope and speed.
“This time will really help me heal even more,” Ellis said. “So I’m praying and hoping that happens.”
Before the injury, Ellis was playing the best basketball of his life. In his five games before going down, Ellis averaged 22.4 points and eight rebounds, shouldering the offensive load as the Jayhawks survived a grueling Big 12 schedule.
For Kansas, Ellis’ value is both obvious and quantifiable. According to the advanced statistic “win shares,” which attempts to measure a player’s total value, Ellis was the second most valuable Jayhawk behind point guard Frank Mason. Mason racked up 4.4 win shares; Ellis was at 4.0, despite playing two fewer games.
Now the Jayhawks have been thrust into a Midwest Region that features No. 1 seed Kentucky, No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 7 Wichita State. To make a long run, to validate another successful regular season, the Jayhawks will likely need to be “whole,” as Self describes it.
“I think this tournament will determine whether it’s a real good season or whether or not it’s a great season,” Self said. It’s “how we do in Omaha, to be real candid with you.”
For Ellis, of course, the weekend could be momentous for other reasons. More than six years ago, Ellis played his first high school basketball game at Wichita State’s Koch Arena on a Saturday evening in early December. It was an early-season event, featuring some of the best teams in Wichita, and Self made sure to be there, starting the recruitment of one of the state’s best young players. Across the gym, holding court in his home arena, Wichita State coach Marshall was in attendance as well.
More than six years later, Ellis, Self and Marshall will be back together, under the same roof in Omaha. The idea that this week could offer a clash between Ellis and Wichita? Ellis certainly wouldn’t mind that.
For now, though, he just wants to make sure his knee will be ready to go.
“It’s all about confidence and mindset,” Ellis said. “And getting out there really gave me a lot of confidence of what I can do and how it feels. And like I said, it’s getting better and better as time goes on.”