They met a few mornings ago, after the emotions of Senior Day had settled a bit, alone in the coach’s office. Over the last four years, Perry Ellis and Bill Self must have met in that big room dozens of times. In the calm before the postseason, this may have been the last time before Ellis is done as a Kansas basketball player.
So, Self wanted the message to be clear and direct. Ellis is a beloved figure even in one of the country’s most storied programs. Nothing can change that. He is mostly consistent, solid, born and raised in the state, and no matter what happens this postseason he will be remembered fondly.
But all of that is incomplete, because there’s another part of this that Self wanted to make sure Ellis heard: his record in the NCAA Tournament is fairly rotten. Ellis’ teams have been seeded no lower than second and only made one Sweet 16. People will remember that, too.
“Oh, I know, Coach,” Self remembers Ellis saying.
“Good,” the coach replied, “because it’s time for you to lead us.”
Kansas begins its postseason with the Big 12 Tournament this week at the Sprint Center. The Jayhawks are ranked first in the country with overwhelming RPI numbers that make them likely to be the top overall seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced on Sunday.
And from KU’s quarterfinal game on Thursday until it loses in the NCAA Tournament or wins the national championship, nobody in or around KU’s basketball team has more to gain than Ellis.
He can go from a sort of super program player to an all-time great. From a good player who’s never been projected as an NBA first-round pick to one of only four men in KU’s career scoring and rebounding top 10. From a player involved in too many early NCAA Tournament losses to the leader of a Final Four team, which would almost certainly put his jersey in the Allen Fieldhouse rafters someday.
Among Kansas’ strengths is a harmonious roster balance. The Jayhawks move the ball well, generally get along, and have a working understanding of where each man fits. It is no coincidence that the season took traction — from three straight blowout losses on the road to the top of the polls — after Ellis and others told Self they felt Landen Lucas should play more.
But Self is like most coaches in that he would prefer to have one guy he can count on. A floor leader to get a basket, or a rebound, or otherwise make a play when it’s absolutely necessary.
Ellis is best-positioned to be that guy. He is talented enough that he could average 20 points and 10 rebounds on a Final Four run without playing above his head. But, also, his aggression goes in and out enough that he had three rebounds in a 60-minute stretch.
He is deferential enough that he often leaves coaches and teammates begging him to be more assertive. In the last few weeks, he has given coaches signs he’s up for it — he’s rarely been more aggressive than in the Iowa State game.
Some of his general reluctance on this is his nature. He is most comfortable being one of the guys, or the guy next to the guy, but Self’s message now is that Kansas cannot be its best without Ellis being the guy.
For perhaps the first time, Ellis’ self-interests are in him being more aggressive, too. And not just because he’s the senior, the three-time all-Big 12 performer, and the most naturally gifted scorer on the roster — though that’s certainly part of it.
The rest of March is a platform for Ellis’ professional career. He is highly unlikely to work his way into the first round, even in what is said to be a weak NBA Draft class. But he could move toward the top of the second round or, more importantly, better showcase his skills so that the right team selects him.
Ellis is what basketball people sometimes call a fit guy, meaning his value is highly dependent on finding the right fit. College basketball’s postseason has served many players well in the past. Even after nearly four years at KU, Ellis can use the next month to better set up his pro career.
In a way, this was never supposed to happen. A year ago, Ellis was playing the best basketball of his life. He scored 18, 19, 23, 24 and 28 points on 58 percent shooting in consecutive games toward the end of February before suffering a knee injury in the regular-season finale.
Ellis tried to play through it, but was ineffective — 11 points per game on 35 percent shooting in the postseason, which ended with a loss to Wichita State.
After the season, Ellis considered entering the NBA. He decided to return, in part, to chase a happier ending with KU. For now, in other words.
“If he finished (last) season the way he was going, I don’t think he would’ve come back,” Self said. “It didn’t hurt him a lot, but if he kept the way he was going, I think he could’ve looked at it like, ‘You know what? I can’t play a lot better than I’m playing right now.’
“And if that had been the case, that would’ve been sad because he would’ve passed up the opportunity to leave behind a special legacy.”
That opportunity comes now, and for the last time. Ellis’ self-interests have never been this clear, and his impact on the program he’ll forever be connected with has never been this high.