CHICAGO — Before the season began, Bill Self kept repeating the same line about sophomore Perry Ellis. On a team with No. 1 overall recruit Andrew Wiggins — a team dominated by freshmen promise and potential — Self wanted to be clear:
Ellis could be Kansas’ leading scorer.
That praise, of course, didn’t stop Self from staying on Ellis during the opening month of practice. Most days, the message was presumably the same as the one that echoed through the Kansas practice gym last season: Be aggressive, Perry. Attack, Perry. Go score, Perry.
The constant reminders appeared to pay off on Tuesday night, when Ellis finished with a career-high 24 points in No. 5 Kansas’ 94-83 victory over No. 4 Duke at the Champions Classic.
“The key was just to get the ball inside and attack — attack at all times,” Ellis said after the game. “And that’s what we tried to do.”
For Self, the matchup really boiled down to a simple formula. If Kansas handled the Blue Devils’ pressure and pounded them in the paint, the Jayhawks would be in position to win in the final minutes. Duke was armed with a cadre of veteran guards — and a polished offensive sniper in freshman forward Jabair Parker — but Kansas had the edge in size and depth in the post. Self just wanted to make sure that Ellis was ready to take advantage.
“I’ve been on Perry quite a bit to be more aggressive,” Self said, “and he was more aggressive. And I thought he was terrific.”
While KU freshmen guards Frank Mason (15 points in 23 minutes) and Wayne Selden (15 points) appeared mature and unfazed by the spotlight, Ellis had his breakout performance on a national stage. And the timing came with an interesting twist.
Earlier in the day on Tuesday, three Kansas freshmen — Wiggins, Selden and Joel Embiid — appeared on the 50-man preseason watch list for the Wooden Award, given annually to the national player of the year. Ellis was left out, perhaps a little unusual for a forward who could be a leading scorer on a top-five team.
Ellis, though, did enter the season with a little left to prove after averaging 5.8 points in 13.6 minutes last season. It was a transition year for the former four-time Kansas state champion from Heights. Ellis needed to add some muscle, gain some strength and find ways to translate his finesse-laden post game to the college level.
The emergence of Ellis started in the latter stages of last season — he averaged 10.7 points in KU’s last seven games — and it’s continued during the first week of his sophomore year. In two games, he is shooting 66.6 percent (12 of 18) from the floor while averaging 8.5 rebounds.
“It definitely builds some confidence, an early win like this,” Ellis said. “There’s still things we need to work on and we just need to continue to get better.”