Perry Ellis may have been one of the most celebrated high school players in Kansas history, but that didn't do him much good when he stepped onto the court at the Georgia Dome last year for his second college game. The 6' 8", 225-pound forward, who led Wichita Heights High to four Class 6A state titles and was named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year four times, looked around the cavernous arena—and realized he wasn't in Kansas anymore. "That was such a different atmosphere from anything I had ever been in," Ellis says. "All I could think about was not messing up. It was a mental block that held me back."
Ellis made just two field goals that night, against Michigan State, and a week later he was removed from the starting lineup. But then he settled down, trusted his instincts and helped the Jayhawks win their ninth straight Big 12 championship. Ellis is now their leading returning scorer (5.8 points) and rebounder (3.9), and his improvement is a big reason Kansas should win a 10th straight league title despite losing all five starters. "Perry could certainly average 14 or 15 points this year," coach Bill Self says. "It was just a matter of him gaining back his confidence last year. The biggest thing I want from him now is to be more of a killer."
Self bid farewell to four seniors as well as to guard Ben McLemore, who left after one year for the NBA, and brought in three recruits—center Joel Embiid, guard Wayne Selden and swingman Andrew Wiggins—all of whom are likely to be lottery picks next summer. Then he added bulk and experience by signing Tarik Black, a 6' 9", 260-pound senior graduate transfer from Memphis.
But Ellis is the key to making these Jayhawks go. "I've got a real good feel for the college game now," he says. He's finally comfortable on the big stage, and he's found that there's no place like home.
This is not a schedule expect for a program that is supposedly in rebuilding mode. The game against Duke offers a sexy freshman matchup between Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker, but the tougher stretch for the Jayhawks begins in early December, when they play back-to-back road games at Colorado and Florida followed by home dates against New Mexico, Georgetown and San Diego State.
Player to Watch: Joel Embiid
Like many talented youngsters who grew up in Africa, Joel Embiid, a Cameroon native whom Bill Self calls a "young Olajuwon," came to basketball relatively late in life. First, he tried soccer and volleyball before alighting in America as a high school junior to try his hand at hoops. Embiid is only playing his third year of organized basketball so he may not start for Kansas from day one, but by the end of the season, Embiid could be one of the Jayhawks' most important players as well as an NBA lottery pick.
Q&A with Head Coach Bill Self
SI.com: Have you ever watched video of the loss to Michigan in the NCAA tournament?
Self: No. I don't think it does much good to watch afterwards, because you can't improve on it. It was a tough loss, but hey, that team last year played as close to its ceiling as it possibly could. It was a fun group to be around, but our margin for error wasn't big enough where we could do the foolish things we did down the stretch of that game and still win.