Omaha Accomplished Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall tried to assume the role coaches enjoy during the buildup to monster games such as the one his Shockers play today against Kansas University.
It didn’t quite fit this time. His Shockers are too good, too experienced, too tournament-tested to be viewed as much of an underdog against a Kansas team that late in the season lost its starting center, freshman Cliff Alexander, to ineligibility, and has its fingers crossed that superstar junior forward Perry Ellis, playing with a knee brace, can deliver his best performance since returning from a sprained right knee.
Still, Marshall tried.
Told that KU coach Bill Self said he had made a mistake in not recruiting Shockers star junior Ron Baker, Marshall responded, “I’m just glad he did. I’m particularly glad he didn’t recruit Ron Baker. He’s got plenty of good players. I’m not sure if I made a mistake in not recruiting his guys, because I don’t think I could have gotten them anyway.”
Not so fast.
Images from the KU men's basketball team during interviews Saturday, March 21, 2015 at the CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.
That’s true of Wayne Selden Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr. and Brannen Greene. Marshall tried to land Ellis, local four-time state champion, and was told by Ellis he finished second.
But the truth is that 40 percent of KU’s starting lineup is made up of players who more closely resemble the typical profile of a Wichita State recruit. Frank Mason III and Landen Lucas have been KU’s most consistent performers in the month of March.
Kurtis Townsend, in his 11th season as an assistant to Self, recruited both players, Mason from Petersburg, Virginia, Lucas from Portland, Oregon. A look back at the Rivals top 150 rankings from the Class of 2013 shows Mason finished ranked No. 76, but the recognition came after KU signed him. That’s what often happens when a blue-chip program discovers a hidden gem.
Mason was set to go to Towson, didn’t gain admission, and was playing AAU ball, set to go to prep school, when Townsend spotted him.
“I went to watch a kid from L.A. who ended up going to USC,” Townsend remembered. “Frank played against him and was the best player on the court by a long shot. So I asked his coach, ‘Does he always play like that?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’”
So Townsend went to see him in his next game.
“Played the same way,” Townsend said. “Dominated the game, did the whole deal. Went and watched him again that night. He played the same way. I found out more about him.”
At that point, what other schools were recruiting Mason?
“Nobody,” Mason said. “After Towson, it was just Kansas.”
Townsend next saw Mason play for Massanutten Military Academy, against Oak Hill Academy, the Wilt Chamberlain of prep schools.
“Let me go see him against real competition,” Townsend told himself at the time. “Their point guard (Nate Britt) already had committed to North Carolina, and Frank gave it to him, and that’s the night I was sold.”
Kansas had been recruiting Cat Barber, who starts for North Carolina State, and Demetrius Jackson, who chose Notre Dame.
Now that Townsend was sold on Mason, he had to sell Self on him.
“He was tough. I’ve been with coach for 11 years now, those are the kind of guys he loves,” Townsend said. “They’re just tough, nothing bothers them, he could get on them, and that’s exactly who Frank is. I knew coach would like him.”
Townsend made an aggressive projection about Mason to Self.
“I told coach, ‘He’s kind of got Sherron’s (Collins) personality, but he’s not quite as skilled as Sherron.’ I told coach he’d be a second-team all-leaguer by his junior year. He said, ‘Come on, one of the top 10 players in the league?’ He was it this year (as a sophomore). He’s come along pretty good. We’re happy with him.”
Landen Lucas: From back-up recruit to back-up center to starter
Lucas, a third-year sophomore who came to Kansas lacking the explosiveness and quickness of most recruits, moved from the back burner to serious consideration for a scholarship when Kaleb Tarczewski committed to Arizona.
“I thought he was really smart, knew how to play, dad was a coach,” Townsend said of why he recruited Lucas. “I didn’t think he was super-athletic, but he had a good touch and knew how to play. I just thought if his body improved, and he got a little more athletic, he’d be a decent player. (Strength coach Andrea) Hudy’s done a great job with him. And he’s done really well down the stretch for us. He’s smart. I think he’s our best low-post sealer, best at getting angles.”
Assistant coach Norm Roberts has shown Lucas the way there. Lucas also banks on daily phone calls with his father for advice. Richard Lucas played for Oregon and was an assistant coach at multiple Div. I schools.
“It’s been huge,” Lucas said of his father’s coaching background. “I talk to him every day after practice and after every game. He’s experienced things from a player’s side and from a coach’s side. His words of advice are very strong for me. He’s helped me through a lot of things.”
Such as staying strong when the playing wasn’t what it now is.
“He’s helped me stay focused and keep my mind right, along with the coaching staff, and it’s starting to pay off,” Lucas said.
Since re-joining the starting lineup for the past five games, Lucas has averaged 8.6 points and 7.8 rebounds. As is the case with Mason, Lucas will be matched up against a more experienced college player, Wichita State’s 6-foot-7, 245-pound senior Darius Carter. At 6-10, Lucas is at least three inches taller than any WSU starter.
“They hit the boards hard,” Lucas said. “I know Darius very well, and he has very long arms, so while he might not be very tall height-wise, he has long arms to make up for it. I’m looking forward to the matchup against their bigs, and I think Perry’s going to do very well scoring, and the other bigs have to make them aware of our inside presence.”
Lucas and Carter were teammates this past summer on an Athletes in Action trip to Europe. Just two guys flying under the radar of more celebrated teammates, will to go anywhere on the globe to improve their games.
One will move on to Cleveland. The other will watch the rest of the NCAA Tournament on TV. It’s so difficult to predict which will keep the dream alive. Kansas at its best is better than the Shockers at their best. But Wichita State, so much more experienced, brings its best more consistently. In short, a game featuring basketball programs from different worlds and the same state that meets the can’t-miss standard for basketball fans from all 50 states.