It’s Tuesday afternoon inside Allen Fieldhouse, one day before No. 6 Kansas will play host to No. 16 Iowa State, and KU coach Bill Self is telling you that Landen Lucas is the best fifth big man on any team in America.
“There’s nobody else that has a fifth guy like Landen,” Self says.
In some ways, this is a rather obscure thing to be touting. Lucas, a redshirt freshman, plays five minutes per game. How important can a fifth big man really be? But in other ways, this shows the strength of the Self system, one of the reasons the Jayhawks are 6-0 in the Big 12 and working on a 10th consecutive conference title.
Lucas is a 6-foot-9 forward who probably would play significant minutes for any other team in the Big 12. But at Kansas, he’s insurance against injury.
On Wednesday against Iowa State, Lucas could slot in as the Jayhawks’ fourth big man in the rotation for the second straight game, replacing senior forward Tarik Black, who’s recovering from an ankle injury suffered last week against Baylor.
“It’s just about staying patient,” Lucas said. “… But it’s a good thing, too. Because we push each other in practice.”
This is the model at Kansas. Recruit big guys with potential. Teach them the game. Let them mature. And sometimes, you end up with this.
In a conference where some contenders struggle to find two legitimate post players for their rotation (See: Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma) Self can overwhelm opponents with future lottery picks and McDonald’s All-Americans.
It’s a stark contrast from Self’s options last season, when Kansas was starting center Jeff Withey and forward Kevin Young in the frontcourt. The Jayhawks also had freshman options in Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, but both were still struggling to find a comfort level for most of the season.
“Last year,” Self said, “if Kevin or Jeff got one (foul) early … it’s like, ‘OK, how are we going to massage this?’ ”
One year later, the Kansas frontcourt has been remade. Freshman Joel Embiid is playing like one of the country’s best centers. Ellis has matured into a more polished scorer, and Traylor has grown into an athletic defender and rim protector off the bench.
And then there’s Black, who was selected preseason Big 12 newcomer of the year. He hasn’t quite lived up to those expectations — in part because of Embiid’s emergence — but he’d carved out a role as a reliable reserve before his ankle injury.
The depth has shown up in the paint. Kansas is outrebounding Big 12 opponents by nearly 10 boards per game (38 to 28.5) in conference play. And the Jayhawks are shooting 57.1 percent inside the three-point line, the second-best mark in the country.
The frontcourt also made a difference in their first round with Iowa State, a 77-70 victory in Ames on Jan. 13. KU outrebounded Iowa State 53-36, making up for a season-high 24 turnovers. If Kansas can dominate the boards again on Wednesday, they’ll have the chance to be 7-0 in the Big 12 with a road game at Texas looming on Saturday.
“We have such an athletic team that we want to outrebound teams by a lot more than we have been,” Lucas said. “It shouldn’t even be close.”
Rebounding, of course, is the one thing that could keep Lucas in the rotation. Even still, a healthy Black likely limits Lucas’ minutes for the rest of the season. With Black on the bench, Lucas had seven points and five rebounds in last Saturday’s victory at TCU. But the rebounds, which came in just 13 minutes, meant the most.
As a kid growing up in Portland, Ore., Lucas grew up watching fellow Oregon native Kevin Love, now the NBA’s premier rebounder for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Lucas’ father, Richard, was once a standout rebounder for Oregon in the early 1990s. So for now, Lucas is content being the fifth-best big man on a top-10 team. But he also has lofty goals: Someday, he says, he’d like to lead the country in rebounding.
“It’s something that my dad kind of installed in me,” Lucas said. “He was a pretty good rebounder at Oregon, and growing up, that’s all he harped on — rebounding.”