LAWRENCE — Frank Mason always believed he could compete for playing time at Kansas during his freshman season, even if his national profile didn’t quite match those of his fellow blue-chip freshmen.
Mason, a point guard from Petersburg, Va., was something of an off-the-radar pickup for Kansas coach Bill Self, who signed Mason when most national recruiting services still had him ranked outside the nation’s top 100.
“I always knew I could play,” Mason says. “I always had the mind-set that I could play with anybody or anywhere.”
But maybe he didn’t quite expect this. Mason will start for No. 5 Kansas as it opens the regular season, filling in for junior Naadir Tharpe in Friday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe at Allen Fieldhouse.
Tharpe, the expected starter, is serving a one-game suspension after playing in an unauthorized summer league game in Chicago. In some ways, though, playing without a veteran guard has become a November tradition for Kansas.
Earlier this week, Self recalled that Tharpe played major minutes in two exhibition games during his freshman season — as veterans Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson served suspensions.
“I’m hoping we don’t miss him,” Self said of Tharpe. “You always want your full complement of players, but I’m hoping other guys step up and play great.
“Certainly Frank is going to make mistakes, but I think it’s great for him to get out there.”
Playing against a Louisiana-Monroe program that finished 4-23 last season, the Jayhawks could probably scratch out a victory with 7-foot freshman Joel Embiid running the show. But for Kansas, just four days away from a heavyweight tussle with No. 4 Duke at the Champions Classic in Chicago, this opener will be about more than results. This will be about building to something greater.
So now Mason takes the reins as freshman Andrew Wiggins makes his long-awaited regular-season debut. Mason joins a starting lineup that will feature three freshman and sophomore Perry Ellis. Three days ago, Mason had four points and six assists while starting for Tharpe in a 92-75 exhibition victory over Fort Hays State. But Wiggins was slow to get going as Self stuck with a lineup of mostly reserves in the first half.
Wiggins will certainly get more minutes Friday, and so will freshman guard Wayne Selden. And Self appears to have no reservations handing the keys to Mason.
“He’s been a rock from an effort standpoint and a focus standpoint,” Self says. “Now we’re young and we talk about him being a point guard, which he is, but he’s never played point. He’s been asked to get 30 every game and put his head down and go score.”
That was Mason’s role while playing last season at Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock, Va. And that was part his role while he played alongside current KU guard Andrew White III on “Team Loaded,” a Virginia AAU program.
“I’ve known Frank since he was 10 years old,” White said. “I’ve always seen him rise to the occasion. The two of us, as kids, we were playing against grown men, so I knew he wasn’t backing down from that challenge.”
For now, Self just wants Mason to stay in control — even if that means keeping some of his natural speed in check.
“When he gets comfortable and turns it loose, we’ll see another gear,” Self says. “because right now he’s kind of playing safe a little bit, which is kind of what I want him to do until he gets comfortable.”
More Champions — The Champions Classic, a neutral-site doubleheader that has become a college basketball staple in the last three years, is being renewed for another three-year run.
Kansas will join Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State for the annual event in Indianapolis (2014), Chicago (2015) and New York (2016).
Kansas will play Kentucky on Nov. 18, 2014, in Indianapolis, while Michigan State will square off against Duke. Kansas faces Michigan State on Nov. 17, 2015 in Chicago, and Duke on Nov. 15, 2016 in New York.
“The University of Kansas is excited and proud to be part of the Champions Classic,” KU coach Bill Self said in a statement released by all four schools and ESPN, which will carry the games. “It’s the most talked about premiere early-season event that our sport offers and to be involved with Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky on a yearly basis brings nothing but excitement to our sport.”