LAWRENCE — Jeff Withey wasn’t quite sure. He wanted to believe that freshman teammate Perry Ellis was close; that as the season headed for March, Ellis would take another step, bolstering a particularly thin Kansas bench.
Withey wanted to believe. But in truth, how could he? He knew the unpredictable nature of freshmen, and the wide variance in first-year learning curves. Who’s to say when the confidence or strength will come? Who knew if Ellis was going going to find himself?
“You never know what to expect from freshmen,” Withey said.
In truth, Kansas coach Bill Self said, nobody really knew. But after four months of doubt, hesitation and indecision, Ellis exploded like a comet last week in Kansas City, helping the Jayhawks to the Big 12 Tournament title while averaging 14.3 points in three victories. He dunked three times while scoring a career-high 23 points in a semifinal victory over Iowa State.
He did not look hesitant, nor did he look like a freshman.
“Now my teammates can even trust me more,” Ellis said, “and I’m just trying to help them win.”
In this way, Ellis has come full circle. Back in October, when the Jayhawks were rolling the balls out for their first practices of the season, Ellis lingered as a possible harbinger of success.
He was a local kid who had won four state titles at Heights, and the Jayhawks were in need of production from the power-forward spot. All-American Thomas Robinson was in the NBA.
And if KU was going to make another Final Four run, Ellis was going to need to mature into a reliable secondary option behind Withey.
But something happened as the calendar turned to December, and then January. Ellis looked unsure and overmatched. He missed layups. He struggled on defense. He played below the rim.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive,” Ellis would say.
If anyone Jayhawk knew what Ellis was going through these past months, it was Withey. He was once a freshman. He once averaged three minutes. He once had the same doubts.
“He is so athletic,” Withey said of Ellis, “(but) he’s kind of passive.”
When Self inserted Ellis into the starting lineup against TCU on Feb. 6, it looked like an obvious ploy. Ellis needed confidence, and perhaps it would come against the Big 12’s worst team.
By the end of the night, Ellis had played 10 minutes and Kansas had suffered a stinging upset.
It wasn’t that Ellis wasn’t playing hard, Self said, or that he wasn’t trying. It was, perhaps, the opposite.
“He’s a terrific kid,” Self said. “He thinks too much. And when you think too much and you’re trying to please all the time, you don’t react as quickly and things like that.”
And after more struggles in February — he had five points in a five-game stretch — it looked as if KU would move forward with what it had. Ellis’ time would come, Self said. But nobody was quite sure when it would come.
Ellis, though, says he began to feel more confident during the first practices of March. He had practiced with seniors Withey and Kevin Young for four months, and something began to click. Starting with KU’s regular-season finale at Baylor, Ellis is averaging 13.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 19.5 minutes.
“He’s played with such a free mind,” Self said.
Now the Jayhawks begin their NCAA Tournament run at 8:50 p.m. Friday, facing No. 16 seed Western Kentucky at the Sprint Center — the same building that housed Ellis’ breakout.
If Ellis’ performance in the Big 12 tourney gave him a measure of comfort, it was hard to tell. For the better part of four months, the introverted Ellis has said the same things: He needs to be more aggressive. He’s working on being more aggressive. Hopefully, he’ll become more, well… aggressive.
On Saturday, as the Jayhawks celebrated their Big 12 Tourney title, Ellis repeated the season-long refrain.
“I just gotta keep listening to coach,” Ellis said. “That’s all I’m doing. I’m just listening to coach, and telling him: ‘Whatever he wants me to do, I’m gonna do it.’ And good things will happen.”
For Kansas, the goal is the 15th Final Four in school history, a journey made easier after Ellis’ evolution. Of course, it’s unlikely that Ellis’ minutes will increase too much. In March, Self says, starters tend to play more minutes and bench players turn into insurance against injury or foul trouble.
But Ellis’ rapid rise does give Self something he didn’t have two weeks ago: A scoring option off the bench. Maybe it’s not what anyone envisioned back in October. But on those days at practice when Ellis plays free and confidence, forgetting that he’s a freshman, Withey can see it in glimpses. His freshman teammate is getting closer.
“When he’s out there and having fun and stuff, he’s a great player,” Withey said. “When he’s like that, he’s a (heck) of a ballplayer.”