Ben McLemore was quiet in the Big 12 title game, scoring just five points, but the Jayhawks won it just the same, 70-54 over Kansas State, and another freshman played a big role.
It’s tough for a big man to step on campus as a freshman and dominate. For Perry Ellis, that was certainly true. The new guy from Wichita had a 15 point game against Southeast Missouri State in early November, then proceeded to have an erratic up-and-down campaign off the bench over the next 31 games, logging mostly single-digit appearances.
But he was learning all along. Clearly, because Ellis has exploded in the Big 12 tournament, putting up 23 to help Kansas defeat a tough Iowa State team in the semifinals, and following that up with a 12 point, 6 rebound effort to help Kansas claim the Big 12 auto-bid in a third matchup with Sunflower State arch-rival Kansas State.
The Jayhawks spent much of this season riding freshman shooter Ben McLemore, but it may be the timely emergence of Ellis – a bruising 225-lb. forward – that gets them back on track to reach the Final Four for the second straight season. Having a third forward who can steal minutes behind lanky big men Jeff Withey (17 points, 9 boards in the final) and Kevin Young (9 points, 10 rebounds) gives Bill Self another wrinkle to throw at Big Dance opponents.
Ellis wasn’t the only player to give Kansas fans hope in the final Big Dance tuneup. Backup point guard Naadir Tharpe put up 12 points of his own, all from behind the arc on a 4-6 deep shooting spree.
With other top teams falling early in their conference tournaments, Kansas may have played their way back onto the No. 1 seed line. Whether they have or not, the emergence of KU’s backup studs has made them a very dangerous team at just the right time.
Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.