Frank Mason missed his first five shots Monday night against Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse. It was senior night and Mason, Kansas’ 5-foot-11 guard, is a senior.
A darn good one, too. Maybe the best senior in the country. Heck, maybe the best player in the country.
But the start of the OU game wasn’t going well. Kansas was flat and Mason was out of sorts.
You couldn’t tell it by his face, though. Mason’s face never changes. I take that back, he did grimace after one of his bounce passes, intended for freshman Josh Jackson, was errant and went out of bounds. But the grimace was short and Mason went right back to work.
“We knew he’d be good. We knew he was competitive,” KU coach Bill Self said while introducing Mason to fans after Monday’s game, which Kansas won 73-63 after trailing by 12 points with 10:13 to play. “We didn’t probably know he’d probably mean as much to this program as any kid I’ve ever coached here. Landen (Lucas) is the toughest big guy maybe we’ve had here. I don’t think anybody would argue … I don’t know if there’s ever been any player tougher than Frank Mason wearing the crimson and blue.”
Let’s not get totally caught up in Mason’s toughness, though. There’s more to him. A lot more.
Start with offense. Mason is averaging 20.3 points. He’s trying to become the 10th Jayhawk to average 20. The other nine: Wayne Simien, Paul Pierce, Danny Manning (twice), Bud Stallworth, Dave Robisch, Walter Wesley, Jerry Gardner, Wilt Chamberlain (twice) and Clyde Lovellette (three times).
And the only guard on that list — at least the only player defined as a guard throughout his Jayhawk career — is Gardner, who averaged 20.7 points in 1961-62.
Mason has a few games left, but if he can stay above 20, he’s going to do something that hasn’t been done at Kansas since Simien averaged 20.3 points in 2004-05.
Great KU guards of the past — Sherron Collins, Keith Langford, Darnell Valentine, Kirk Hinrich — didn’t average 20 points.
Mason is a fierce defender and an adept passer. And despite looking up at almost everyone else on the floor, Mason loves to stick his nose into a rebounding fray. He has 121 rebounds this season and he’s been upset at not getting about another 500.
I’ve never seen a basketball player who loves contact more. His specialty is driving into the lane, often without a lane, and creating contact. Mason has attempted 694 free throws in his career, the second most in KU history behind Valentine’s 754. Mason’s 446 makes are the fourth for a KU player behind Valentine (541), Manning (509) and Robisch (462).
Mason, though, has developed his three-point shooting to the point where he’s now impossible to guard. After shooting a respectable 38.7 percent from the three-point line during his first three seasons, Mason has improved to 50 percent (67 of 134) this season.
Mason averages more than 36 minutes, yet never seems to wear down. He takes one shot after another, but doesn’t flinch. He brings the crowd to its feet at least a few times every game, but doesn’t bask in the spotlight.
He puts his head down and goes to work. He credits his teammates and coaches for everything, even the stuff he does. He speaks softly with an obvious intent of not drawing too much attention to himself.
You’d be hard pressed to find a KU player not named Lovellette, Chamberlain or Manning who has ever had a better season than Mason is having. He’s willing this team, short on depth, to its 13th consecutive Big 12 championship. The Jayhawks have risen to No. 1 in the national rankings on Mason’s wings.
Say all you want about the contributions of the rest of the KU players, especially Josh Jackson and Devonte Graham, but this is Mason’s team and it’ll go as far as Mason takes it.
He’s the best player in America and it’s not relevant whether we saw this coming or not. Mason is a credit to senior basketball players everywhere, guy who have stuck around and improved and not been in a hurry to rush off to the promised land, where promises often are not kept.
Mason promises nothing more than a hard-fought effort. And he gives one every time.