Tulsa, Okla. — Kansas center Landen Lucas didn’t realize it at the time, but when he and his young teammates experienced early exits from the NCAA Tournament as underclassmen, the disappointment doubled as a valuable lesson about what it takes to win in March.
Now a fifth-year senior, Lucas played for KU teams that lost to Stanford (2014) and Wichita State (2015) at the very stage of The Big Dance that his Jayhawks find themselves in now, the Round of 32.
Much wiser and accomplished at this stage of his college career, when Lucas reflects on those seasons that came up short of a Sweet 16 berth, he realizes, at the time, the Jayhawks fell into the trap of assuming March Madness success. He said ahead of KU’s Sunday meeting with Michigan State this year’s veterans know it’s better to approach every tournament game as the most important one.
“I think it was obviously an important game, but it wasn’t the most important game,” Lucas shared of the approach that bit KU during his freshman and sophomore seasons. “I think last year put so much on us to make sure that we got past this game (second round) that we did whatever it took. We were meeting as a team outside of the coaches telling us to, just to make sure we had scouting report down, and we’ll do that again this year.”
Now that KU’s veterans know what it’s like to get as far as the Elite Eight, which Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk all accomplished a year ago, Lucas said they understand there is no harm in expending all the energy they have to advance.
“We’re treating this like it’s a championship — like it’s our very last game,” Lucas said of No. 1 seed KU’s showdown with No. 9 Michigan State (20-14). “Because then, as we know last year, you get a couple days, you can regroup, reset a little bit and then go into the next weekend. So we’ve got to treat this like it’s our last game and go out there and really not look ahead at all.”
Two years removed from KU’s second-round loss to Wichita State, Mykhailiuk and Mason said they both have forgotten about that game by now. Mykhailiuk, though, sees some similarities that should help Kansas (29-4) know what to expect at BOK Center versus the Spartans.
“But that (Wichita State group) was a pretty tough team, like Michigan State,” the junior from Ukraine said. “They were a low seed but really good, and that’s the main point about them. They can beat anyone.”
The elder Jayhawks know now what they didn’t when they were younger. Those second-round losses, Lucas said, taught them your mental approach during the NCAA Tournament is as important as anything.
“It’s really what helped us out last year,” Lucas said of KU coming one win away from a Final Four in 2016. “It’s what’s gonna help us out again this year, because we learned from that. At the time there was really nothing against those teams, because those teams didn’t have very many people who had done it before. It was a lot of young guys or transfers or different things. We were all learning together, and that’s the benefit that the guys who have been here for that long period of time have, because we did learn from those experiences.”