Kansas center Landen Lucas wasn’t in the mood to be told he’d played well — even if an eight-point, five-rebound effort appeared to be progress in Kansas’ 89-74 victory over Stanford on Saturday.
“There’s still a lot of improvement I have to make,” Lucas said. “But I’m aware of it. I’m not settling for anything.”
All throughout his Kansas career, Lucas has relied on his intelligence to make up for any athletic shortcomings he’s had. The 23-year-old, who already has his business degree and likes to head to Kansas City casinos to challenge his mind in Texas Hold ’em poker tournaments according to a recent Bleacher Report story, is as deep a thinker as the Jayhawks have had in recent seasons.
Yet that gift might have been holding him back early on. After being lauded by Kansas coach Bill Self as the biggest reason for the Jayhawks’ 17-game win streak a season ago, Lucas put excess pressure on himself this offseason to set goals higher.
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It’s the reason, Lucas says, that he’s shown some poor body language at times this year, whether that’s meant dropping his head or complaining to officials.
“I’ve got to make sure I manage that, because as a senior on this team, I can’t do that,” Lucas said. “I’ve got to get better at that.”
The good news for Lucas? He’s smart enough to get out of this funk as well.
Saturday’s game against Stanford showed just how much KU needs him. Stanford’s Reid Travis met little resistance in the post, scoring 29 points while racking up 22 free-throw attempts. That was the most by a KU opponent ever — home or away — in the program’s storied history.
As one might guess, Self made sure to bring this up to his forwards after the game.
“One guy just kicked our butt,” Self said.
So what’s the solution? Well, Kansas can start trapping the post, a riskier strategy that will require practice time and repetition.
Or, Kansas can simply get the Lucas back it had last season: the one who didn’t foul and was able to shut down other team’s big men.
“I think part of it is just my aggressiveness isn’t there on defense, just all-around game,” Lucas said. “That’s mainly due to trying to stay out of foul trouble.”
This has been Lucas’ main problem of the early season, though it’s probably more easily correctable for him than Kansas’ other big men.
Lucas had four fouls Saturday (the Jayhawks’ primary big men combined for 16), but two of his fouls in the first half came on offensive possessions.
One was an illegal screen where he lunged unnecessarily at a Stanford player, while another came on an NCAA officiating point of emphasis. During a set play by Kansas, Lucas had his man sealed with his hip for an easy basket, but he also raised his right elbow to clear extra space that wasn’t needed.
Though that wasn’t a foul a year ago, it is this year. And it’s that type of nuance that has kept Lucas from staying on the floor.
Lucas also has been playing injured. He hurt his right foot before the season-opener and has worn a walking boot to take pressure off it, though he said Saturday it is “getting better.” He also sat out Kansas’ last game against Long Beach State with an oblique ailment, according to Self.
“None of my injuries are really affecting me,” Lucas said. “Anything on the court is all me.”
Though Lucas isn’t making excuses, keep in mind he’s playing for a coach that isn’t a big fan of soft players. Admitting an injury is hampering him — even if it is — might not be the best path to future playing time.
Either way, Lucas is expecting more out of himself. Last season, he was in the top 50 nationally in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage; this year, he hasn’t cracked the top 500 in either.
“I’ve been terrible. I know that,” Lucas said of his rebounding. “That’s something I need to change, but I also know that it’s something I’ve done for years now, ever since I was a little kid.
“It hasn’t gone anywhere, and it will come back eventually. I think I’ll make it happen.”
This much is evident: Kansas’ four-guard look needs a reliable defensive stopper and rebounder at the 5 position. Lucas, even with a tough start, has a clear path to extended playing time if he can give the Jayhawks more of what he has in the past.
Lucas also is bright enough to understand the long game.
“What happens early on in the grand scheme of things isn’t that big,” Lucas said. “I’m just staying calm and just trying to find a way to progress in each game and each practice, so when it does matter, I have it figured out.”