No matter how you slice it, Frank Mason has been the Jayhawks’ first-half MVP
LAWRENCE, Kan. — Good point guards know when to blend in with the furniture. But the ones you can trust — really, really, really trust — know when to come to the rescue, too.
With the game tied 27-27, 2:05 left in the first half and UNLV feeling plucky, there’s Frank Mason, cutting into a passing lane, intercepting the ball like a cornerback on the close and racing in for the quick layup.
Fast forward to the 11:20 mark of the second half, the Runnin’ Rebels up 51-49, defying the ghosts of The Phog and there’s Mason, crashing the lane with another dagger.
There’s Mason with the trey at 9:56, then another scoop at 9:11, pushing the Kansas lead to 58-51 and capping a 9-0 Jayhawk run.
"That (scoop) is something I always work on in practice," said Mason, whose 18 points and seven assists pulled No. 13 KU past UNLV, 76-61. "We’ve got a lot of tall guys like Cliff (Alexander), Landen (Lucas), Perry Ellis and Jamari (Traylor), so I work on things like that during practice."
Mason is 5-foot-11 with a 6-foot-9 spine. The really, really, really good point guards, the ones who stick, have a tendency to share that trait as well.
No fear. No worry. No panic. When the tension in the air is thick enough to spread on rye, they’re the ones who want the butter knife.
"He’s the guy that makes that whole thing go," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "You don’t fully appreciate him until you watch him play a few times. He just makes all the right plays."
Rice went on to say that Mason — not Ellis, not Alexander, not crazy-gifted wing Kelly Oubre — was the first player the Rebels talked about in their KU scouting report. While that might say something about the smaller-than-usual Jayhawk bigs, it also says something else, something better for Bill Self and company: Namely, for the first time in a long time, their backcourt is getting in people’s heads. And getting there before they even step on the floor.
During last January’s pre-Big 12 "trap" special at home versus San Diego State — an awfully salty Aztecs team, it should be noted — KU’s starting guards combined to score 25 points, shoot two-of-11 from beyond the arc, and collect seven assists and three steals while turning it over three times.
This time around, the backcourt trio combined for 50 points, shot seven-for-15 on threes and accounted for 11 assists, five steals and four turnovers. Because positive mojo, especially when KU plays up-tempo, can start to get contagious, too.
"I’m trying to figure it out so I can do it," off-guard Wayne Selden said when asked about Mason’s moxie. "He’s doing a great job."
And doing it solo, for the most part. When combo guard Devonte’ Graham, the closest thing Self and the Jayhawks have to depth or cover at the point, went out with turf toe during a Dec. 10 victory at Georgetown, all the weight at the "1" shifted to Mason’s 185-pound frame. In the five games since, the KU guard has averaged 15.2 points, 5.6 assists, 2.2 steals and 35.4 minutes.
"I don’t think we’ve ever leaned on anybody the way we’ve leaned on Frank," Self said. "Certainly, if we can get his minutes down to 30, that will help him a little bit, allow him to play better."
Self has referred to the Massachusetts native as his first-half-of-the-season MVP, and the metrics won’t argue that point. Sports-Reference.com tracks a number of advanced college basketball statistics, but one of the most interesting is something called win shares per 40 minutes (WS/40) — an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes to his roster on offense and defense per 40-minute interval.
The site says an average player typically scores a .100 in WS/40. Coming into Sunday, Mason’s WS/40 was .167, the second-highest total among Jayhawk starters to wing man Oubre (.179) and, more crucially, the highest WS/40 figure by a starting KU point guard since Sherron Collins’ .181 in 2009-10.
To put that stat in an even finer context, Tyshawn Taylor recorded a .136 in ’10-11 and .162 in ’11-12, while oft-criticized point men Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe scored a .098 and .112, respectively, in the two campaigns prior to this one.
"I always knew that I was capable of being this good," said the sophomore point guard, who hits Big 12 play leading KU in 3-point percentage (.514) and free-throw percentage (.846) while ranking second in scoring (12.4). "Even though I still don’t think I’m playing good. I’m doing what my teammates need me to do and what Coach (Self) needs me to do."
Mostly, they needed to make sure Sunday didn’t turn into Aztecs, Part II. The Rebs closed the half on an 11-2 run to take a four-point lead into the break. In the second period, 6-11 forward Christian Wood, a prototype stretch 3, a rim-protector on one end and a wing threat on the other, drained a pair of treys to knot the contest at 49-49 with 12:51 left. The wolves were howling at the gates.
Mason made sure they never got in.
"The guy probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves," Rice said. "He’s certainly somebody that can help them make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament."
It’s a guard’s game, and the next 10 weeks, in particular, are a guard’s time. And when it comes to March, blueblood or mid-major, one rule remains universal: The steadier the hand at the wheel of the ship, the longer the voyage.