The college hoops lull has arrived, a brief pause before all the big conferences kick off their tournaments over the next 72 hours. An opportunity to reflect on the regular season and think about the real tournament that is just over a week away.
In my case it’s a chance to begin working up a healthy case of nerves about KU’s chances to end their season in Houston. That’s an outcome that I figured had roughly zero chance of happening just over a month ago. After an 11-game winning streak to close the regular season, though, expectations are jacked up again. More than excitement, this is causing my stomach to tense and knot and grumble. “How are we going to blow it this year?”
I hate college basketball.
In my reflective moments, I’ve been thinking about how this KU team fits into recent history, and about Perry Ellis in particular. To me both this team and Perry are throwbacks to the college basketball I grew up on.
Let’s start with Perry. Dude has come a long way. He arrived with tremendous hype and pressure after being one of the greatest prep players in Kansas history. He was able to ease into his role at KU, first joining a team that was full of veterans and NBA talent which was coming off a national title game appearance. He showed promise but wasn’t asked to do a whole lot. As a sophomore, everything was focused on Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. He moved into the starting lineup, got better, but it was never his team. In his first two years, he would have moments of brilliance, and games where he was a non-factor. Sometimes even less than a non-factor if that’s possible.
That changed his junior year. He made more improvements. He got more consistent and rounded out his game. He was the primary option on offense any time he was on the court. But, as Bill Self often said, he left you wanting more. Part of that was just his steady demeanor. He rarely emoted, whether he was up or down. There were also the nights where he was going against a taller defender, got blocked two or three times early, and then either kept doing the same thing and wrecking the offense, or just gave up and completely disappeared. By the end of last season, I think a lot of KU fans were frustrated with Perry. Good kid, but not the program centerpiece we wanted him to be.
This year he did what he always did. He got a little better in every aspect of his game. He added moves and patience inside. He became a very good outside shooter. He got better at putting the ball on the floor and driving. He’s not a great one-on-one defender, but he’s a very good team defender and can chase guards on the perimeter, which was hugely important when KU adjusted their defense in late January.
Last Monday’s game against Texas might have been the perfect Perry Ellis game. He made Longhorns center Prince Ibeh look foolish. He took him off the dribble and threw a shot high off the glass from the right. Moments later same move from the left. He took Ibeh outside and drained a three in his face. He beat Ibeh up the court to draw a foul. Ibeh is a better athlete, is taller, and can jump much higher than Perry. But Perry used his old man smarts and YMCA game to destroy Ibeh and turn the game into a rout before the first Tv timeout.
Perry Ellis has a ton of talent. He’s such a smart player. He’s gotten 15–20% better each year. That’s what college players used to do. Even the supremely talented ones paid their dues, and by the time they were seniors, they were a potent blend of talent, skill, and experience. It’s been a lot of fun to watch Perry blossom this year. I hope his shoulders are broad enough to carry the weight in March, and join Thomas Robinson, Nick Collison, and Danny Manny as Jayhawk big men who have led KU to the Final Four.
Regarding the team, they’re a throw back in a different way. They’re athletic in an up-and-down sense, but don’t have a bunch of high flyers among them. Every starter does a few things well, but not one of them beyond Ellis can be considered elite at their position nationally. And they’re fairly small, the starters going 5’11’‘, 6’2’‘, 6’5’‘, 6’8’’, 6’10". That group isn’t going to turn heads in the airport the way a lot of recent KU teams would.
Physically they look more out of the 1980s than the current era. And their style of play, which needs all five guys working together to function best, feels more like college ball from the 80s or 90s than today’s more athletic, isolation-focused game.
Which should’t be taken as a nostalgic, “Things were better when I was a kid” take. It’s just fun and refreshing to watch a team that is mostly seniors and juniors who have put their work in and rely as much in guile as overpowering people to win games. Still, I’m totally on board if Josh Jackson decides he wants to spend his year of college in Lawrence next year.
By the way, it is fine to say this isn’t the most talented KU team in the 12-year conference title streak. But as Kansas City Star beat writer Rustin Dodd pointed out last night, it is ridiculous to say that last year’s team was better. He put most of that on this year’s team not having a slashing wing like Kelly Oubre, who he said was overrated and not loved by NBA guys. I think that sells Oubre a little short. He had a few fine games last year. And KU could use a slasher with length this year.
I would add to Dodd’s argument that every returning player is significantly better this year than last. Ellis and Mason took regular jumps you expect from guys with their experience. Graham showed flashes last year, but has taken a huge leap this year. Wayne Selden is always going to be mercurial, but his highs are much higher this year. Landen Lucas has learned how to play Roy Hibbert defense around the rim and turned himself to a really good rebounder. The bench is deeper and more versatile than a year ago. Last year’s team might have had more NBA potential because of Oubre, but this year’s team is better in every way.
Please let that be enough to get past Northern Iowa, Providence, or whoever KU will need to beat to get to the second weekend of the tournament.