Kansas center Landen Lucas is here, and that might be the most important point to make.
He’s here at the NCAA Tournament, a starter for top-seeded KU, after averaging 4.9 minutes his redshirt freshman season. He’s here after he had thoughts of leaving the program a few years ago, and after watching as KU’s coaching staff attempted to recruit over him year after year.
“My whole time here I’ve had an end goal and an end vision of it,” Lucas said.
That wasn’t always easy to see. Lucas didn’t start out as one of KU coach Bill Self’s favorites, even if Lucas has developed into that. Lucas wasn’t a Rivals top-150 player out of high school and essentially was the team’s backup plan, with Kansas making a late push for him after highly rated Kaleb Tarczewski chose Arizona in 2011.
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Lucas had previously built relationships with other coaches. He’d known Arizona’s Sean Miller since Lucas’ freshman year of high school and also talked extensively with Washington’s Lorenzo Romar.
When it came down to making a college decision, though, Lucas knew he had to turn down the other offers. He didn’t want to pass on KU and then think “What if I’d went there?” the rest of his career.
“If you’re going to be a player or be a part of something anywhere, this is the pinnacle of it,” Lucas said. “This is the best it can get.”
That didn’t mean that Kansas started out as a perfect fit for him.
There were early disagreements with Self about minutes. The coach’s stance was that Lucas needed to prove during practice and in his limited playing time that he deserved more run. Lucas, meanwhile, believed that some of his small contributions wouldn’t be recognized if he didn’t get extended duty.
Self’s harsh words also helped Lucas develop some toughness. Lucas admits there were times when he was “trying to be a player that I’m not really made to be.”
“He needed to be hard on me for me to actually be able to see how I could help this team,” Lucas said of Self. “It probably was better that he was than letting me go on thinking I’m something that I’m not.”
Lucas still had to persevere. He spoke during his senior speech last month about Self once telling him the only game he’d start at KU would be his last one at home. Lucas struggled with some of the criticism, and after attending three different high schools, he had become accustomed to switching situations when he believed it was best for his future.
This time, though, he decided to stay.
“It was pretty much the exact opposite in high school,” Lucas said. “I was kind of just, ‘Oh, this doesn’t feel right. I’ll go here.’ ‘Oh, I want something better, I’ll go here,’ just jumping around. Whereas when I got here, during those hard times, we just decided to stick it out and see what happens.”
This is the result of that choice.
Lucas is finishing up his fifth year in Lawrence, which is the longest he’s lived consecutively in one place. He’ll make his 60th start in Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener against UC Davis, the defensive anchor of a team with Final Four aspirations.
He’ll also serve as an example for those around him. A few chairs away in the locker room, Mitch Lightfoot — who is averaging 4.0 minutes per game his freshman season — says Lucas is one of the guys he looks up to most.
Lucas hasn’t hesitated to offer words of encouragement, knowing exactly what Lightfoot is going through.
“You’ve got to be a strong-minded person in order to make it through it,” Lucas said. “It’s not for everybody. But I feel like with somebody like Mitch, he’s capable of doing it.”