Kansas battling both sickness and West Virginia
LAWRENCE, Kan. — The recovery period allows precious little time.
Just one day of rest exists for Frank Mason III, among those in the running for national player of the year, to bounce back from an illness that limited the senior point guard in a one-point win that No. 3 Kansas (22-3, 10-2 Big 12) claimed Saturday.
In addition, No. 9 West Virginia (20-5, 8-4) promises to offer a stiff test as one of just two conference rivals to defeat the Jayhawks, who will at least be home in Allen Fieldhouse for the Monday rematch.
Mason will attempt to return to form after logging a season-low 26 minutes before fouling out of an 80-79 win at Texas Tech.
Attempting to play through an illness, Mason hit just 4 of 13 shots from the field and did not make a field goal until the second half. He netted 12 points, well short of the 20.1 average that makes him the Big 12 scoring leader.
Surviving crunch time — at least the final 3:05, the point at which Mason fouled out — could strengthen the Jayhawks even more for the stretch run and even the postseason.
“To me, we have seven starters,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And I think whoever’s out there has got to do the job. And I think we got good enough and poised enough guys to do that.
“Of course, we’d much rather have (Mason) in than out, without question. If anything, it will help (with) that, but I don’t want that. I mean, I wasn’t looking forward to that moment. But after we’ve gone through it, it can’t do anything but probably help us.”
Freshman guard Josh Jackson took over as the Jayhawks’ go-to man with Mason first struggling and then sidelined. Jackson scored a career-best 31 points at Texas Tech and added 11 rebounds for his fourth double-double in five games.
In addition, junior Devonte’ Graham distributed a team-high six assists and filled in some at point guard.
“He’s the leader of our team and we go where he goes,” Graham said of Mason. “Once he fouled out, I just have to step up in his role and take on that leadership and try to help close the game.”
Self did not elaborate on the severity of Mason’s illness except to say “he’s got something.”
In addition to leading the Big 12 in scoring, Mason also averages the most minutes (35.4) of any player in the conference.
Any lingering bug is particularly disconcerting for the Jayhawks because of the constant pressure the Mountaineers apply with their relentless press.
On Saturday, West Virginia was tied at halftime before dismantling Kansas State 85-66 for its fifth win in six games. The Mountaineers scored 20 second-half baskets and allowed Kansas State just 20 second-half shots. They force 22.2 turnovers on average.
Sophomore forward Esa Ahmad netted 27 points in the 85-69 decision that West Virginia handed Kansas on Jan. 24.
For the season, the Mountaineers’ scorers are well-balanced. Junior guard Jevon Carter paces West Virginia with an 11.8 average, though four other players average at least 9.5 points.
Considering West Virginia trails first-place Kansas by two games, a sweep of the season series looks almost essential to fulfill any title hopes the Mountaineers possess.
Kansas has won 12 consecutive Big 12 titles and has not lost at home to West Virginia since the Mountaineers joined the conference in 2012-13.
“We just want to win a championship,” West Virginia senior reserve guard Teyvon Myers said. “We understand we need to win these games and have some teams win some other games to get to where we need to be. We’ve got a big one coming up (at Kansas), but I think our guys are ready.”