Here is the truth about Perry Ellis: He may be the worst smiler in college basketball, if such a term or honor even exists. They come about once a month, it seems, about as often as 60 degree days in a subarctic Kansas winter. And when Ellis, a sophomore forward, does form his face into what may be considered a half-smile, it almost feels more like a grimace.
When Ellis was growing up in Wichita, his mother, Fonda, used to call that her son’s poker face. Nobody really knew how Perry was feeling, and nobody really bothered asking. Perry would be Perry. And that was good enough.
So here it was, in the final minutes of No. 7 Kansas’ 95-65 woodshedding of TCU on Saturday afternoon, and another three-pointer was going down. Ellis had scored 30 points — on his way to a career-high 32 — and for a moment, he broke character. The poker face was gone, a smile was forming.
Maybe Ellis is starting to open up?
“You really think he’s opening up?” Kansas coach Bill Self said, smiling.
Maybe not. In another Year of the Freshmen, where the highlight reels and daily debates are often focused on the rookies, it’s been easy to ignore Ellis — both here in Kansas and nationally.
Maybe that’s partially an Ellis problem, of course. He can be quiet and smooth, and nothing about his game has a real high decibel-level.
“The way that he plays,” sophomore wing Andrew White III said, “he gets a lot of sneaky buckets, sneaky rebounds.”
“Subtle points,” Tarik Black said.
But for one afternoon, no one could overlook Ellis. He finished 13 of 15 from the floor. He demolished his previous career high of 24, set earlier this year against Duke. (It was the most points by a Kansas player since Ben McLemore had 36 last season against West Virginia.)
Ellis grabbed eight rebounds and dished out a career-high five assists while carving up TCU’s zone defense. And he did it all with freshman center Joel Embiid sitting out, recovering from knee and back injuries. By the end, when Ellis finally exited the game with under four minutes left, the Allen Fieldhouse crowd had come to its feet and the student section was chanting: “Perry, Perry!”
“I definitely felt in a rhythm,” Ellis said. “I wasn’t taking rushed shots. I was just trying to take the most shots in rhythm. That’s when most of them go in.”
Last Monday, in the moments after Kansas’ overtime loss in Manhattan, K-State coach Bruce Weber had called Ellis his choice for Big 12 player of the year. On a team with a handful of future millionaires, maybe it was a little surprising. But Self said Ellis provides something that Andrew Wiggins and Embiid can’t — at least not yet: offensive consistency.
“We need him to continue to get better,” Self said. “Even though he won’t be our leading scorer this year, he’s still our most consistent scorer. You feel like with him, you can get 13 points or 14 points most every night. And with some of the other guys, they’ve got to make shots or you’ve got to run stuff for them.”
Self, as you might expect, said Ellis still needs to become more dependable on the defensive end. And during the first half on Saturday, that went for the rest of the Jayhawks.
How bad was Kansas’ defense during the first half? Entering Saturday, TCU ranked ranked 313th in the nation in points per game and 321st in field-goal percentage. By trailing just 47-40 at halftime, the Horned Frogs were already two-thirds of the way to the 59.1 points they had averaged in 11 Big 12 losses. TCU guard Kyan Anderson scorched KU for 21 points during that first half, and when the Jayhawks finally locked him up, the scheduled rout was back on.
“The adjustments we made defensively (in) the second half to guard him weren’t really major things at all,” Self said. “It was mainly just try a little harder.”
Wiggins scored 17 points on seven-of-11 shooting, and Wayne Selden Jr. added 15 points and four assists. The Jayhawks, 19-6 and 10-2 in the Big 12, opened the second half on a 23-4 run, outscoring the Horned Frogs 56-18 in the paint.
“Been nice being in Lawrence,” TCU coach Trent Johnson said, sarcastically. “Hopefully I’ll be able to come back if I don’t kill myself in the meantime.”
Inside the Kansas locker room, the vibe was a little more … well, positive. The Jayhawks notched their 10th Big 12 victory with a road game looming on Tuesday at Texas Tech. And Fonda Ellis waited near the Allen Fieldhouse sideline for her son, while Ellis waded through a long autograph line.
“Nice game, Perry,” a young fan yelled.
He kept the poker face.
“I’m just trying to go out there and play my best,” Ellis said.