KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Maybe there’s something about the Sprint Center. Maybe there’s just something about the postseason. Whatever it is, Kansas freshman forward Perry Ellis continued rapid, late-season evolution in the Jayhawks’ 64-57 win over Western Kentucky on Friday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"He’s been so impressive lately, you just see that confidence building and building," Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe said. "And tonight, where the guards aren’t playing very well we had to rely on the big guys a lot and Jeff (Withey), Perry and Kevin (Young) all stepped up."
Ellis had nine points and seven rebounds in 12 minutes against the Hilltoppers, and was one of the few sources of offense Kansas was able to rely on in a first half where no outside shots seemed to go in.
"We were just playing here last week, same stadium, same amount of people but this definitely felt different," Ellis said, referring to Kansas’ Big 12 championship. "That’s because the stakes are so high. It’s not something you can really experience until you’re in it."
Ellis was even confident enough to go to Kansas point guard Elijah Johnson and tell him a particular post move was going to be there "all day" if he found him in the right spot. That move came from the right block, where Ellis posted up and went to the same move several times, a 2-3 dribble progression into the lane, head fake and the shot.
"I just saw that part of the post was open every time," Ellis said. "I went to (Johnson) and told him to be looking for me on that side. I’m getting more confidence and my teammates are seeing that."
Ellis, who won four straight Class 6A titles at WIchita Heights, even had a basket and the foul — he didn’t make the free throw — where he adjusted in midair and went to his left, non-shooting hand to convert the bucket.
"I just had to react," Ellis said. "I got in the air and it was just instinct, really."
In the second half, Kansas coach Bill Self seemed to have given Ellis a permanent seat on the bench until center Jeff Withey picked up his third foul with the Hilltoppers still threatening.
Ellis came in and provided an instant spark on offense and on the boards, although Kansas coach Bill Self didn’t leave much to Ellis’ imagination when he put him in.
"He told me to go in and rebound, and that was it," Ellis said. "That’s usually what he tells me when he puts me in. Rebound. Be aggressive on the boards."
With one NCAA game under his belt, he now gets a shot at a marquee game on the national stage when the Jayhawks take on North Carolina on Sunday with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line. The Tar Heels go much deeper into their bench with big men.
"It’s where you want to be," Ellis said. "Survive and advance, that’s all that matters."