As he considered the growth of surging Kansas forward Perry Ellis, Texas coach Rick Barnes’ first notion on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse was to attribute that to longevity.
“Well, he’s a senior …,” he said. “People don’t realize what that is.”
Forgive Barnes for the technicality of being off a class year in the heat of the moment after Ellis had amassed 28 points and seized 13 rebounds to enable KU to grit out a 69-64 victory over the Longhorns.
But his rationale was entirely understandable.
Because Ellis, once a case study in the notion of paralysis by analysis, so long gridlocked by over-thinking and conscientiousness, has emerged into KU’s most reliable and mature player.
That makes him the anchor and in some ways the rudder for a team that has plenty of talent, even without the indefinitely suspended Cliff Alexander, but little way of knowing on what days which versions of his teammates will appear.
Now, other Jayhawks had some fine moments in this riveting game that featured 14 blocked shots by Texas (and 10 by KU), 19 lead changes and 14 ties.
Freshman Kelly Oubre had 15 points and nine rebounds, and point guard Frank Mason had just one turnover to set the tone for just six by KU, and Kansas’ big men combined to clamp Texas’ three starting forwards to a total of nine points.
Coach Bill Self recited a few of these points, too, but they were just the setup for the punchline.
“But we rode Perry as hard as we’ve ever ridden him. And he was great,” Self said. “He’s playing as well as anybody in the country, I would think, right now.”
With a third straight 20-plus point performance, Ellis has averaged more than 20 a game in the last five outings to help stake KU to a win away from clinching at least part of a preposterous 11th straight Big 12 title.
But the last three games in particular perhaps say the most about the growth of Ellis, who was ridiculed even by some KU fans for missing a last-gasp, helter-skelter layup at West Virginia.
Never mind that it was an unscripted play after the Mountaineers’ late basket, that Ellis had milliseconds to determine where he was and how much time he had to shoot and that the Jayhawks only were in the game because of his 19 earlier points.
That could be just the sort of thing to set a mind brooding, especially that of a Wichita Heights High valedictorian that is so pensive to begin with.
Instead of withdrawing some, though, Ellis has only asserted himself more since.
“Just attacking, no matter (whether I) missed a shot, get a shot blocked, just keep going,” he said, later adding, “The main thing is just believing in myself that I can do it. And I’m doing it.”
Ellis pointed to a combination of visualization and prayer that has been helping him get his “mind right.”
And not just on the court, where even at his distance Barnes can spot that the key has been that Ellis has “simplified a lot of things.”
The same young man that Self said as a freshman could have sat in his office for 24 hours and not uttered a word, the same youngster who a year ago seemed to be breaking through with what Self called 30- to 40-second conversations, organized a players’ only meeting along with teammate Wayne Selden.
He even said a few things, for that matter, about how everyone can and should play harder and how this group can’t and won’t be the one that allows the Big 12 title streak to be broken.
“I’m definitely growing, each day, growing better as a person and a player,” Ellis said, not boastfully but with pride.
The most substantial part of that growth is perhaps the hardest: learning to let go and cut loose instead of fretting about every … single ... thing.
“For the first time I think since he’s been here, he’s actually playing at the level that we all see him playing at. And that’s being ultra-aggressive,” Self said. “And when he’s ultra-aggressive, he’s as fast as anybody, he’s as bouncy as anybody and he can certainly score with anybody.”
That might be all the more crucial now, of course, with Alexander’s season and even KU’s future an uncertainty.
Before the game, Kansas cryptically announced that it would be without Alexander, a 6-foot-8 freshman averaging 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds.
“The NCAA has alerted us to an issue that could affect Cliff’s eligibility,” KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger said in a statement. “As a precautionary measure Cliff will not take the court until we have resolved the issue.”
After the game, Self twice said that whatever the issue was concerned “Cliff”, as opposed to being a KU matter. He said Alexander would be allowed to practice but noted he didn’t know when he’d return.
That’s just another variable in a season in which KU seldom knows on whom it can count.
Ellis surely will have more dips, especially since he’s become KU’s constant and thus will be the object of more scrutiny yet from opponents.
But he’s grown up in a crucial way, just when Kansas needs him most, so much so that Barnes may end up more right than he would have known should Ellis move on to the NBA after this season.
“If he keeps playing well,” Self said, this might as well be his senior year.