LAWRENCE — It was early November, and Landen Lucas was a little concerned.
Here he was, a redshirt freshman forward, and still probably the 12th man on Kansas’ roster. Each day at practice, he looked around. There was an ample supply of talented bodies in the frontcourt. And he was relegated to playing with the Jayhawks’ “Red” squad, the scout team made up of walk-ons and benchwarmers.
It was early, of course, but reality was setting in. After sitting laying out his freshman year, he might have to wait another season to break into the regular rotation.
“I didn’t know if I was really going to get a chance,” Lucas said.
Kansas coach Bill Self wasn’t sure, either. His four-man frontcourt rotation was mostly solidified, and Lucas, a 6-foot-10 forward, was something of an afterthought. But by last Saturday night, after the Jayhawks’ 80-63 victory over New Mexico, Self conceded that his view of Lucas was beginning to evolve. Lucas had scored two points and grabbed five rebounds in 10 minutes, giving Kansas some increased production as the team’s fourth big man.
“Landen gets in there, and he doesn’t play much, but he gets five rebounds in (10) minutes and he’s obviously a factor,” Self said. “So I think that’s going to be really good for our team moving forward.”
Lucas’ chances to impress may still be limited — his 10 minutes against New Mexico were a season high and he’s averaged just 5.2 minutes per game in KU’s last five games. But there’s at least hope. While senior transfer Tarik Black has struggled to stay on the floor after beginning the season as a starter, Lucas has proved himself capable of being solid in spot minutes.
“What I want to bring and what I think I can bring is just some energy off the bench — some hustle and rebounding,” Lucas said. “That’s really what I do.”
Lucas’ next opportunity to showcase his value could come today, when No. 18 Kansas returns home to face Georgetown. It’s the Jayhawks’ first time in the Phog since Nov. 22, and if that seems like a long stretch, Self would agree with you.
“Without a rodeo or the Ice Capades performing in here, I don’t know why you’d ever spend this much time away from home” Self said.
Self has a point, especially considering he holds a 164-8 record at home. But Kansas did, and the result was a 3-3 record in six games away from Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks seemed to regain some of their early confidence with a solid performance against New Mexico, and Self hopes that energy bubbles over with Georgetown, 7-2, in the building.
“It’s been a while,” freshman wing Andrew Wiggins said. “We’re excited to be back home.”
It’s been so long that Lucas was still working to emerge from scout-team status the last time KU played in Lawrence. But even with Lucas proving useful in small doses, Self thinks there’s still a role for Black, who has nearly recorded as many fouls (27) as points (28) this season. Freshman Joel Embiid has cemented himself as KU’s starting center, but that doesn’t mean Black can’t find comfort coming off the bench.
“That might be better for Tarik,” Self said, “coming off the bench and not have that minimum deal that he’s got two fouls by the 17-minute mark most every game. You know, Tarik has been good in practice, and he just needs to be able to take the practice to the games.”
At times, the KU frontcourt can appear a little crowded, with sophomore forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor also commanding minutes. But Lucas thinks the competition has helped speed up his development — just as practicing daily against Jeff Withey last season helped him mature during his redshirt season.
“It’s something you don’t get at most programs,” Lucas said. “You usually face a guy like Joel, Jeff or Tarik … for the first time in a game. And that’s really not the time to be figuring out how you’re going to guard that type of player. So getting to go against them everyday in practice really prepares you.”