This Kansas basketball team does not have a natural go-to guy. There are no real All-American candidates. There might not even be any true locks for the All-Big 12 first team. Kansas coach Bill Self will tell you this. The statistics will, too.
All season, the Jayhawks have done it by committee, with numbers, with depth and talent and each player pulling his own weight. On any given Saturday, given the circumstances or the opponent, nearly any player can step into a prominent role. But here is the thing about No. 8 Kansas’ 74-64 victory over No. 16 Baylor on Saturday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse:
Nobody thought it would be Landen Lucas.
Lucas, a 6-foot-10 redshirt sophomore, entered Saturday afternoon averaging just 11.4 minutes per game. But in reality, the minutes don’t truly define his role. On some days, like a road victory at TCU, Lucas will play 24 minutes off the bench. On other days, he won’t play at all. He is, to put it one way, Kansas’ fourth big man, and that means his role is largely dependent on the success of the men playing in front of him.
“I’m comfortable with it,” Lucas said. “Whatever Coach asks of me, I’m ready to do it.”
On Saturday afternoon, as Baylor tried to play Big 12 spoiler and register a signature road victory, Lucas played just 2 minutes in the first half. The Jayhawks, who had fallen behind by 13 points in the opening minutes, trailed 33-27 at the break. Kansas’ offense was struggling against Baylor’s zone. Allen Fieldhouse was waiting for a run. Self thought it was time to extend his frontcourt rotation.
“Landen knows how to play,” Self said.
In some ways, Lucas’ contributions were subtle in comparison to his more highly regarded teammates. Lucas finished with nine points, snatched four rebounds and made all five of his free-throw attempts in 14 minutes.
Forward Perry Ellis, meanwhile, finished with 18 points on eight-of-11 shooting. And freshman wing Kelly Oubre put up 18 points and drilled a three-point dagger — his fourth of the day — that pushed the Jayhawks’ lead to 67-59 with 2 minutes left.
But it was Lucas who carried the water inside for long stretches of the second half, banging with Baylor big man Rico Gathers and making crucial play after crucial play. At one point, Lucas finished a three-point play at the basket, sparking a 10-0 run. In another moment, he stepped in front of Gathers and drew a critical charge.
Gathers, who had gone four straight games with at least 15 rebounds, was limited to eight total boards and just two on the offensive glass.
“I hoped I got a chance to get out there and go against Rico,” said Lucas, who carries a wide 240 pounds on his 6-foot-10 frame. “But you just never know how the flow of things are going to go.”
The Jayhawks improved to 21-4 overall and 10-2 in the Big 12 Conference, checking off another box in their quest for at least a share of an 11th straight Big 12 title. On Monday, they will enter Morgantown, W.Va., and face West Virginia with at least a two-game lead in the Big 12 race. But for one afternoon back in Lawrence, the story was the Jayhawks’ enviable depth — Self wielding another tool in his Swiss Army Knife bench.
As freshman forward Cliff Alexander struggled to get in sync against Baylor’s zone defense, Self could call on Lucas, who has a better feel for situations, angles and spacing.
“He understands the game better than any big guy we have,” Self said.
This is a Kansas luxury, of course. The Jayhawks do not feature a player that averages more than 13.1 points per game, but they go deep enough to cover up for whatever deficiencies are present. In 25 games, eight different players have led Kansas in scoring. On Saturday, it was Ellis and Oubre. But it could have just as easily been Wayne Selden (15 points) or Frank Mason (who struggled scoring with five points in 31 minutes).
Sometimes, of course, it’s not so easy to coach a team when the scoring roles can be so fluid. But for Self, it also feels slightly strange to complain about having such a wealth of options.
“I don’t think too many people will feel sorry for you if you have several good players,” Self said. “So I like that. But we don’t know who our leading scorer will be, for the most part.”
On Saturday, the offensive issues were glaring early. Baylor built a 13-point lead in the first half, deploying a 1-3-1 zone that was different from the zone used in Kansas’ 56-55 victory in Waco on Jan. 7. By halftime, KU had cut the lead to 33-27. And the Jayhawks shot 54.5 percent and made 20 of 22 from the free-throw line in the second half.
Five of those free throws came from Lucas, who reverted to an old free-throw routine at the start of Big 12 play. It’s simpler, he says, with fewer dribbles. It’s also working. Lucas is shooting 15 of 17 from the line in conference games, and the Jayhawks are rolling toward more hardware.
Sometimes, Lucas’ role is undefined. Sometimes his minutes fluctuate. But for now, he is happy where he is. And Kansas definitely is, too.
“You never know who it’s going to be on any certain day,” Lucas said. “With (our) guards it’s like that, and with the bigs, it’s like that, too.”