Freshman forward Cheick Diallo came to Kansas with a resume that seemed to ensure instant stardom in what would surely be a brief passage through Lawrence.
Among other accolades, he was the most valuable player at the 2015 McDonald’s All-American Game, chosen first-team All-American by Parade magazine and rated No. 7 among the nation’s best high school players in the ESPN100.
Not far behind on the hype/anticipation index was freshman forward Carlton Bragg, who was ranked 14th by Rivals.com and 21st in the ESPN100 recruiting ratings.
And then there was junior forward Landen Lucas, who wasn’t so much as a blip on Rivals.com’s top 150 list when he signed four years ago and was among the seemingly pedestrian incumbents that Diallo and Bragg would have eclipsed by now.
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But on Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse, with KU at a crossroads in pursuit of its 12th straight Big 12 title and, more significantly, defining its personality, here was Lucas playing the game of his life in Kansas’ 75-65 victory.
“The best player in the game,” coach Bill Self would say later.
Which is why the guy who came in under the radar and was supposed to be in the background by now was the one being escorted immediately after the game to have a seat with Dick Vitale for an interview.
“It was awesome,” Lucas said. “You grow up watching him and stuff and there I am taking a selfie with him at the end of the interview.
“It was … something that as a kid you dream of, so that’s pretty cool.”
The dream is picking up steam just when it might have seemed it would be ebbing.
With nine points and career highs of 16 rebounds and four blocked shots (he’d had five all season entering the game) and some robust defense, Lucas stood as testimony to the practical benefits of maturity and seasoning and patience in a sport that is consumed with instant stardom.
“When we recruited Landen, we recruited him as a backup, to be real candid,” Self said. “We recruited him as a ‘program’ guy.”
Meaning they saw some raw potential in him … in time.
So Lucas redshirted a season, played sparingly as a freshman and gradually more last season, including nabbing 19 rebounds in KU’s two NCAA Tournament games.
Now, with Diallo a question mark because of his learning curve and Bragg not much readier for prime time, Lucas started for the sixth straight time and seems to be establishing himself in a new way at KU’s greatest point of flux and uncertainty.
By more or less “doing what he does,” as Self put it: absorbing and executing scouting reports to their granular details; being a good and selfless screener and natural rebounder who has learned to assert himself more to go after opponent shots and is trying to find a way to create a few more of his own.
These things, it turns out, can take some time to develop.
Which is why no matter how much fans might want to see more of Diallo and Bragg, the truth is those two aren’t far enough along even in practice to make their contributions nearly as valuable as what Lucas gives them right now.
“Every kid wants it to be immediate,” Self said. “Cheick and Carlton are better prospects coming in here. But you guys saw tonight: That was a kid who’s been through the wars and been in the weight room for four years.
“He knows how to help you win a game, and certainly those other kids will, too. They’re just a little young.”
No doubt great days are ahead for them, but the future is now for KU as Self gears for the rest of the Big 12 race in a three-way tie for first and girds for the NCAA Tournament that will define the season.
At least for the moment, though, on a night when Diallo and Bragg combined for zero points in 3 minutes, Lucas has shown he can be a part of the solution.
Even if his scoring arsenal is limited, and he’s the first to tell you he has “bad habits” of dribbling too much and not going up with the ball immediately enough at times.
Even if Lucas was overlooked as Diallo and Bragg were being anointed in advance.
“They deserve it,” he said. “They had great high school careers and were highly recruited. They’re going to come in and do their thing, and it’s just our job as older guys to help get them prepared for times when we will need them and just continue to do what we do.”
And continue to do better and better, particularly on a night when Self said Lucas was “the primary reason we won.”