LOUISVILLE — Kansas had been a part of this situation before, more times than it wished to remember: a team with NBA-level talent, which began the season ranked in the top 10, falls flat in the NCAA tournament against an opponent with no sure-fire first-round picks in its starting lineup. It happened to the Jayhawks in 2010, when their six future NBA players were upset in the second round by Northern Iowa. It happened to KU in 2011, when its six future NBA players were upset in the Elite Eight by VCU. Happened again in 2014, when Andrew Wiggins was knocked out in the second round by Stanford. Happened again in 2015, when the Kelly Oubre Jr. team was sent home by Wichita State in the Round of 32.
And it happened again on Thursday in the Sweet 16—except Kansas, despite being a No. 1 seed, was on the other side of the situation. It was Maryland, the preseason No. 3 team in the AP poll, with projected first-rounder Diamond Stone at center, and projected (for the early part of this season, at least) first-rounder Melo Trimble at point guard, falling flat against a team without a starter that NBA scouts covet. Kansas, which won 79–63 and moved on to face Villanova in the Elite Eight, remains the tournament favorite because it’s greater than the sum of its parts—and also, because one of its parts, while he’s not even guaranteed to be a second-round pick in June’s draft, could go down as one of the most valuable power forwards in the history of a storied program.
That part is understated and undersized (at least by pro standards, at 6'8") senior Perry Ellis, who scored season-high 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting, flummoxing four different members of Maryland’s frontcourt—Stone, juniors Robert Carter and Damonte Dodd, and sophmore Michal Cekovsky—with post moves, dribble drives and face-up jumpers. Ellis is the rare five-star recruit who stays four years in college—and all four years at the same college—but by doing so, Self says, “He has a chance to leave Kansas with a legacy that will allow him to be a hero there for a lifetime.”
Ellis won’t say these things himself, though. Faced with a question, in the post-Maryland press conference, about the meaning of his final NCAA tournament hurrah, all he said was: “Just happy with the team. Just going to try to keep competing and having fun with it.” And when he scored his final bucket on Thursday, on a pretty, face-up jumper over Dodd with 6:03 left that put Kansas up 66–53, and forced the Terrapins to call a damage-control timeout, Ellis did not yell or chest-bump or gesticulate on his way back to the Jayhawks’ huddle. All he did to celebrate the 26th and 27th points in the best NCAA tournament performance of his career, on a day where he also passed Paul Pierce on KU’s all-time scoring list, was clap—twice.
Some of Ellis’s teammates, however, could not resist staying quiet. Junior guard Wayne Selden had somehow internalized pregame talk about the talent gap between the Terrapins and Jayhawks in a way that made him convinced KU was an underdog, despite his team being favored by six points. “They said they had the NBA players over there, we just had the average Joes, and we took that personally,” Selden said. So with 16:43 left in the second half, when he hit a three over Layman—a fellow projected second-rounder—to put Kansas up 48–43, Selden told anyone within earshot, “He can’t guard me!”
After the game, Selden was also comfortable speaking on Ellis’s behalf, proclaiming, “I can say it for [Perry]: They can’t guard him.”
The Terrapins began to realize this in the second half, as Kansas’s two-point halftime lead began expanding, Ellis’s point total kept rising, and he proved nearly impossible to defend without fouling. After Ellis caught the ball in the mid-post, drove left on Dodd and was fouled under the rim with 12:31 left, Maryland senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon pleaded with referee Ron Groover for guidance. “I’m asking, ‘What can he do?’” Sulaimon said of Dodd, while trying to mimic a straight-up stance. Groover appeared to tell Sulaimon that Dodd could try to take a charge, to which a more agitated Sulaimon replied, “Aside from taking a charge, what can he do?”
The Terrapins never found a good answer. Cekovsky fouled Ellis again less than a minute later on an and-one, and those points plus an Ellis jumper on the ensuing possession gave Kansas an 11-point lead at 59–48 with 11:13 left.
Junior center Landen Lucas said Ellis’s monster game was no fluke, because Kansas coaches recognized how much trouble Maryland’s bigs were having with that defensive assignment and kept calling plays to get Ellis the ball. Lucas watched with amusement—and recognition, but not sympathy, as the frustration mounted. He has tried, mostly in vain, to guard Ells in practice for years. “When [Maryland’s big men] were jawing at each other to guard [Ellis], I knew how it feels,” Lucas said. “And it sucks.”
Lucas tends to have the best perspective on Ellis’s dominance, because the 6’10” junior, ever since joining Kansas’s starting lineup on Jan. 23, has been playing ever-increasing minutes alongside Ellis. Early on in Thursday’s game, Self subbed that 4-5 duo in and out of the game like a hockey line, and they delivered: Kansas was plus-11 with Ellis on the floor in the first half and plus-nine with Lucas, while it was minus-seven with freshman backup Carlton Bragg and minus-nine with senior Jamari Traylor on the floor. Lucas complemented Ellis as an offensive rebounder (Lucas grabbed four, and had 11 total boards) and garbage-collector (scoring 14 points, mostly at close range). The realization that Lucas and Ellis work so well together has led to a shrinking of Kansas’s frontcourt rotation, but Self says it’s necessary to maximize Ellis’ abilities. “We need[ed] to play somebody,” Self said, “that gives Perry a chance to be as good as he can be.”
With the end of his college career on the line at every step of this NCAA tournament, Ellis has reached that peak level. He may not yet be a lock to get drafted, but he’s now one win away from the Final Four that eluded him in his first three years in Lawrence, and three wins away from being a Kansas hero. Can Villanova—or anyone—find a way to stop him?