KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Landen Lucas would have preferred silence.
The Kansas basketball forward’s college career just ended with a thud, a 74-60 defeat to No. 3-seeded Oregon in the Elite Eight on Saturday night at Sprint Center, and coach Bill Self was trying to find the right words to comfort the melancholy Jayhawk locker room.
At this point, he might as well have turned the speech over to the fifth-year senior.
“I don’t know, you hear the same things every year,” said Lucas, his eyes red and glazed over. “I’ve been here for five years now and heard the same speech every loss. It’s going to be the same thing: Keep your heads up, all that stuff. It was just something I didn’t want to hear.”
Addressing his players — many of whom had their heads buried in their hands or wrapped towels around their necks to obscure their faces — Self didn’t have much to say.
How could he have?
“There wasn’t much talking going on,” Self said. “I’m real proud of our guys. They’ve had an interesting but a great, great, great year.”
This year’s Jayhawk squad finishes with the same final resting place as four others in the Self era — the Elite Eight. But make no mistake: This was unlike any other in his now-completed 14 seasons at KU.
More than anything, the season will likely be remembered for the otherworldly performance from senior guard Frank Mason, who finished averaging 20.9 points and 5.2 assists in his final campaign. No player before him had ever posted a 20-plus point and five-plus assist average in the 21-year history of the Big 12.
Mason finishes his career sixth on the program’s all-time scoring chart (1,885) but without a Final Four berth on his résumé. Regardless, his legacy remains a sterling one, his teammates contend.
“It’s still going to be great,” Lucas said. “He’s one of the best point guards to ever come here and one of the best players. His legacy shouldn’t be hurt by this at all because night in, night out, he brought it.”
Josh Jackson, the Jayhawks’ versatile freshman guard whose 13 double-doubles helped Self deploy a four-guard lineup almost exclusively for the first time, agreed Mason’s legacy shouldn’t be harmed by the lack of a Final Four.
“Frank has been an amazing player for the whole season. He’s done a great job,” Jackson said. “As I look around college basketball, I don’t see not one player that can do the things he did all season, for a whole season, and be consistent.”
Individual performances aside, this season’s KU squad will also be remembered for mastering the art of the comeback — until, that is, when it mattered most.
The Jayhawks (31-5) overcame double-digit deficits to earn victories seven times, all dating back to the start of conference play. The most notable on the list, of course, is their rally against West Virginia on Feb. 13 at Allen Fieldhouse, which erased a 14-point deficit with less than three minutes left for an eventual 84-80 overtime victory.
The team also rallied from five deficits of at least eight points, including a nine-point hole overcame in an eventual 77-75 victory over then-No. 1 Duke on Nov. 15 at Madison Square Garden.
Given its propensity to play with fire, KU’s record certainly could have been much worse. But then, it could have also been even better.
Two of the Jayhawks’ five defeats came in overtime against teams that got season-high outputs from 3-point range (Indiana, Iowa State), and another came in a Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal played without Jackson, who served a one-game suspension that was the result of one of the several off-court incidents that at times entangled KU players.
Still, the road to a record-tying 13th straight regular-season conference championship was a taxing one for the Jayhawks, already thin before the season-ending injury to 7-foot freshman center Udoka Azubuike in late December.
“You feel like a cat with nine lives,” Self said Feb. 19, “and you know those lives will eventually run out.”
There would be no 10th life against the Ducks.
An 18-point second-half hole proved too deep for the top-seeded Jayhawks to climb out of, stopping the team one victory short of the Final Four for the second straight season. It was undoubtedly an agonizing defeat for a coach that has called the Elite Eight the toughest round to fall in and who must now face the potential prospect of losing his entire starting five.
“Sure it’s going to stick with us,” Self said Saturday. “But the one thing that did happen today, it’s hard to admit, the best team won today. Today, I don’t think we ever really put our best foot forward like we have consistently all season long.”