Perry Ellis has never been much for words. He speaks in a soft monotone. He shields his emotions behind a mask of stoicism. He rations his thoughts as if he might be billed for each sentence he utters.
So on Saturday afternoon, in the moments after No. 9 Kansas’ 68-57 victory over K-State at Allen Fieldhouse, Ellis was never going to puff out his chest after another double-digit victory over an in-state rival. But in this moment, as the Jayhawks improved to 18-3 overall and 7-1 in the Big 12, Ellis didn’t need many words to show how much this all meant.
“It’s personal,” Ellis said.
It was personal, Ellis said, because he is a proud Kansan, a Wichita native motivated by the two teams from Kansas on the floor. It was personal because Ellis grew up playing against K-State senior Nino Williams, who spent his high school years at Leavenworth. It was personal, of course, because here was another opportunity to keep his team atop the Big 12, another chance to show just how far he’s come during his junior season.
“I’m growing,” Ellis said. “I’m growing as a person, as a player, just learning as we go. I’m still learning.”
As Ellis said this, he sat in a crowded media room at Allen Fieldhouse, leaning forward in his chair. He finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds — his fifth double-double of the year — as Kansas beat K-State in Lawrence for the ninth straight year. In some ways, it was like so many other versions of the Sunflower Showdown at Allen Fieldhouse. The score was slightly different. The characters were updated — some new, some older. But the rough template — the basic structure of this story — remained unchanged.
The Jayhawks didn’t dominate on Saturday, but they were never really in trouble, either. They sprinted out to a 20-5 lead in the opening seven minutes, held K-State to 17.1 percent shooting (6 of 35) in the first half, and then spent the second half keeping the Wildcats at a safe distance.
“It was almost like, when we got the big lead, we let off the gas a little bit,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “That’s kind of human nature, but when you’re playing your rival, in a building that’s juiced, you don’t want it to be that way.”
So this was the general takeaway from another predictable afternoon in Lawrence. The Jayhawks maintained sole possession of first place in the Big 12 heading into Monday’s showdown with second-place Iowa State. Perhaps the K-State rematch at Bramlage Coliseum on Feb. 23 will offer the drama that was lacking on Saturday.
But if KU was looking to clutch onto something more substantial from Saturday’s victory, perhaps they can look toward Ellis, who has quietly re-discovered his offensive mojo during a crucial conference stretch. In his last five games Ellis has averaged 14.6 points and 8.2 rebounds, re-asserting himself as the quiet soul of the Kansas offense.
“Perry is just rock-solid,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “Even last year, I thought he could have been MVP of the league, but he’s always there for them.”
In some ways, this is the Ellis that Self expected after a breakout sophomore season. One year ago, Ellis averaged 13.5 points, quietly filling the stat sheet while Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid drew headlines and attention from NBA scouts. When the season began, Ellis imagined what it would be like to be the go-to guy. He wanted to be more of a leader, to carry the offense, to do all the things expected of him. And perhaps, he says now, the weight of those expectations did something to his confidence. Perhaps his head was too clouded. Perhaps he needed some time to adjust to all the defenses that were now designed to stop him.
“Last year, with JoJo and Wiggs, that took a lot of pressure off,” Ellis said.
Self likes to say that Ellis is conscientious — almost to a fault. A high school valedictorian, Ellis is a thoughtful sort in a sport that often rewards those that can block out all thoughts and maintain something like a helpful ignorance. But over the last few weeks, something has happened. Ellis says he’s found a new level of comfort.
On Saturday, he scored 13 points and grabbed 10 boards during the first half, hitting six of his first eight shots. He showcased his arsenal of inside fakes, moves and spins. For a dominating stretch, Ellis was not thinking. He was just playing.
“Just trying to get every rebound,” Ellis said.
In the moments after the game, Ellis spoke about trying to have more fun on the floor — about trying to play with more aggression and more fire.
“If Perry said he’s having fun, that’s great,” Self said. “Because nobody else would know it, because he doesn’t smile a lot.”
As Ellis sat inside Allen Fieldhouse, he cracked at least one smile. This really was personal. And he really didn’t need to say anything more.
“We just knew that Perry needed to make a statement this game,” Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre said. “He’s one of the best players from Kansas. So that’s what he did.”