KANSAS CITY, Mo. – After waking up at the team hotel, Kansas forward Perry Ellis heads to see the trainer. It is typically the first of many encounters on a given day, given the state of Ellis’s injured right knee. And before he returned to action on Friday night at the Big 12 tournament, Ellis estimated it took a good 10 minutes to wrap up the injured joint. He guessed the medical staff used three kinds of tape before latching a black brace on the whole thing. In the locker room after a semifinal win over Baylor, he still had strips of Kinesio tape running up and down his calf and thigh.
“As you get going,” Ellis said with a shrug, “it loosens up and feels fine.”
How well Kansas can pad itself against vulnerabilities is an issue not restricted to the team’s leading scorer. A 62-52 victory over the Bears was auspicious on many fronts, especially the defensive one, and it put the Jayhawks back in the conference tournament title game for an 11th time. Still, this is a team that has navigated a good amount of personnel uncertainty at the most unfortunate time for it, calibrating and recalibrating roles in late March, when these matters ought to be settled. Very little of this is the Jayhawks’ fault, but limiting the damage is entirely their responsibility.
They may be a highly fallible No. 2 seed anyway, even with Ellis back in the lineup. The best team in the nation’s toughest league still is galaxies away from the best teams Kansas has fielded in recent years. But if the players take ownership of their own business more consistently, if the energy doesn’t lag as it did in the quarterfinal against TCU, then this can be a team braced against a first-weekend disaster in the NCAA brackets.
“Everybody has to stay ready,” said guard Wayne Selden Jr., after a sizzling 20-point, eight-rebound night against Baylor. “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”
The most tangible and necessary step was getting Ellis back on the floor. The 6'8" junior’s demeanor may be understated; his value is not. He received the loudest ovation of any Kansas player during pregame introductions, and his first shot – a corner 3-pointer on the second offensive possession – clearly imbued some belief in the entire sideline. He posted 11 points and six rebounds in 26 minutes, sitting the seven minutes after catching a knee to his right thigh, but the numbers were almost beside the point.
This may not be an All-America level performer rejoining the fold, but Ellis is undeniably required. His mere presence at least makes it one fewer question the Jayhawks have to deal with. And with nagging injuries to Ellis and Selden along with the ongoing eligibility saga of freshman forward Cliff Alexander, Kansas has dealt with a barge of questions entering March. “To see [Ellis] healthy, to see him active and about, that gives us a boost,” swingman Kelly Oubre Jr. said. “As soon as we started the game, he was the old Perry, getting buckets like he does.”
Repeating every bit of Friday – Ellis’ presence, the enhanced energy, the diligent defense and rebounding - is now the trick for the title game Saturday and beyond.
Kansas head coach Bill Self appeared to be steaming over unacceptable levels of interest from his players in a quarterfinal win over TCU, and that was rectified against Baylor. The best three-point shooting team in the Big 12 missed 18 of 22 on Friday, and at least some of that was due to the Jayhawks’ relentless defensive pressure. Baylor shot 32.8% overall and committed 17 turnovers, and Kansas out-rebounded the burly Bears by four.
Betting on Self’s crew to replicate that against every team it faces is probably a losing wager. But it must approach every game as if that is possible, or else it loses its cushion against failure.
“If we wanted to play a pretty game with Baylor, they would probably beat our butts,” Self said. “So I think we did a good job of making it a game with no rhythm and I do think our guys find a way to win. Last night we found a way to win ugly. I think [tonight] was more of a good defensive energy, rebounding‑type effort - which is the formula for winning in the NCAA tournament, too, because you can never bank on shots going in.”
When Kansas is locked in about doing the right things, Self said, it can do some good things. Its relative challenges might not go away by the time it heads (most likely) to Omaha for tournament play next week. But an attentive approach can be the supportive wrap on any and all aches and pains.
It will help if Ellis is as capable as he was Friday. He was hesitant to come back for the quarterfinals but showed no limitations against Baylor, running and planting and cutting well. He took an ominous sharp turn to see the trainer as soon as he made his way into the locker room, but he emerged a few minutes later and said he felt good. He took the shot to the leg in the second half but declared himself fine. He got in the work that both he and Self felt was needed before the NCAA tournament began, to restore his confidence in the knee.
He was, for a night, one question Kansas didn’t need to answer anymore.
“I felt comfortable out there,” Ellis said, “and it’s going to get better from here.”