In Mason's winner, I sensed a carryover effect from an amazing national title game. There is an optimism hitting the horizon of 2016-17 college basketball campaign.
You're waking up feeling it a bit too, aren't ya? It's going to be a terrific season for college hoops, and this is only the beginning.
That 77-75 Kansas-over-Duke thriller which started Tuesday night and ended early Wednesday morning was the first cannon shot of what will become one of the most notable seasons of the past decade. I'm not talking just March. We're not saving most of the fun for then, but we'll get the goods from now until April. Frank Mason and his onion bag will lead our way down the trail.
…Less than a week in, Mason's play must be taken seriously. He's at 51 points in two games, and is first in line for National Player of the Year. You hit that shot, score 21 points and dish five assists against No. 1 Duke, it starts the highlight reel that will run to the end of the season. At the end, we'll look back at five months of what's going to be filled with compelling games played by outrageous athletes and controversial coaches. And Mason kick-started the marathon with a slick, cool step-back -- beauty of a bucket.
The play was what Doug Collins used to call for Jordan all the time back in the 1980s. To paraphrase: Give Frank the ball and everyone else get the hell out of the way.
…For Kansas, the win means more than you might think. The Jayhawks lost in overtime Friday against a beautifully coached Indiana team. KU's last remaining notable nonconference game comes in January at Kentucky. Fair to chalk that up as a loss. Going 1-2 against three teams likely to vie for No. 1 seeds looks a lot better than 0-3. It's nearly automatic that Kansas will win the Big 12, so you pair that with a win over Duke, and this could, and should, have 1-seed implications come March.
On the first can’t-miss night of college basketball’s young season, about a dozen players who are expected to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft streamed into the world’s most famous arena. But Frank Mason, a 5' 11" senior guard who originally committed to Towson before becoming a Kansas star, overshadowed all of them when he hit an iso, step-back game-winner to give the No. 7 Jayhawks a 77–75 win over No. 1 Duke. With one swish, Mason reset the college basketball conversation back to the upperclassmen—at least for a night.
…Frank Mason’s game-winner will be the most memorable moment of the night, but he was brilliant throughout the entire game. He offered the Jayhawks 21 points, five assists and two steals in 35 minutes to help them avoid their first 0–2 start since 1973. “If Frank hadn’t gotten in foul trouble early,” Bill Self told reporters after the game, “he would have played 40 minutes as well.”
Mason and junior guard Devonte’ Graham—whom Self affectionately refers to as “the two littles”—give Kansas college basketball’s most coveted advantage: A veteran backcourt. Even better, they are both point guards, and they each can create their own shots and lock down much larger and more imposing guards. After a first half in which the Jayhawks went 1-for-12 from the three-point line, Self reminded his players—and particularly his two guards—that they let opponents off the hook when they settled for contested jumpers. “He tells us nobody can guard us or stay in front of us,” Graham said.
So when will we learn? A year ago Buddy ball stole the season, and Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu combined to lead Villanova to a national championship. A year before that, Quinn Cook rallied Duke's trio of NBA-bound rookies to a title. Before that, it was Shabazz Napier taking UConn by the hand, and all the way back in 2013, it was Peyton Siva guiding Louisville.
None of that seemed to knock any sense into us.
Maybe this, a Frank Mason winning jumper on the early season big stage of the Champions Classic instead of the end-season elevated stage of the Final Four, will do the trick.
…Seniors matter. They've always mattered. They still matter this season. They will matter next season.
…Much has been made about Mason's past, about an early commitment to Towson after he failed to catch the expert eyes of college recruiters early. Along with backcourt mate Devonte Graham, whose college career began at Appalachian State, Mason makes up the best small-major gone big-timer perhaps in the history of the game.
But his story now isn't so much about people who missed on him. It's about who he has grown into. Asked if his younger self could have made such a big shot, Mason smirked.
"I'm not sure I'd be in the game in that situation in my younger days," he said.
Asked if all the freshmen in the Champions Classic had overshadowed a senior like Mason III, Self said: “I think [the] NBA is missing the boat on him. He doesn’t fit the eye test with length and standing height and that kind of stuff. But he’s got some things you can’t teach and intangibles that are as good as anybody in America probably possess.”
…“It was a heck of a game, they’re really good,” Krzyzewski said. “Their backcourt is a heck of a backcourt.”
“We’ll see what will happen when we get guys back,” Krzyzewski said. “We didn’t lose because we were short-handed tonight. We lost because Kansas played better.”
Kansas traveled straight to New York from Hawaii on Saturday and Self said it was good to avoid going 0-2 to start.
“If you’re going to travel 11,000 miles,” he said, “you might as well win at least one game.”
But the player who hit the biggest shot thus far in this young season Tuesday night in New York is not taking anyone's job. He's barely on the NBA's radar.
Frank Mason III is that man—a bad, bad man—and chances are Kansas head coach Bill Self wouldn't trade him for any of those future lottery picks.
Mason made the Champions Classic his night when the narrative was supposed to be about the young 'uns. The 5'11" senior point guard punctuated a brilliant performance when he rose up over Matt Jones to bury a game-winner and save the Jayhawks from a 0-2 start with a 77-75 win over top-ranked Duke.
…The win is big for KU's confidence but isn't going to have that much impact on the season. Duke and Kansas are far from finished products, and it's hard to judge the Blue Devils without seeing those three freshmen on the floor.
But don't write off the Jayhawks as potential champions just because they barely won Tuesday against a short-handed team. This is going to be a squad that can run with Duke once it's stacked.
Jackson is figuring out his role and is going to stop fouling. Udoka Azubuike looks like a promising big body off the bench, which Kansas desperately needs. Graham is really good. Carlton Bragg is coming along.
And the Jayhawks will always have the baddest dude on the floor.
He's not a lottery pick. But he's damn good...and clutch.
Bleacher Report CJ Moore
1. The officiating made it brutal to watch
I may or may not have been whistled for a technical foul just writing this.
Early in the game, the officiating crew called back-to-back offensive charges on Frank Mason III, then on Duke's Luke Kennard. Then a minute later, Frank Mason III got whistled for a touch foul that was met with disdain by Bill Self. The early foul trouble forced Kansas' hand to make adjustments they weren't accustomed to.
"We played with lineups we've never practiced with before," Self said at halftime of the telecast.
The officiating crew set a precedent early on that they were calling it tight with the new freedom of movement rules. It really felt like the last man standing with both teams getting into foul trouble. A combined seven players finished the game with four fouls, and two players -- Kansas' Josh Jackson and Duke's Amile Jefferson -- fouled out.
Meantime, the Blue Devils other best player, Grayson Allen, was about as awful as he has been in the entirety of his Duke career. The preseason player of the year candidate shot just 4-of-15 from the field, his troubles starting long before he left the first half prematurely after dinging his knee.
And so to panic that Duke, the No. 1 team in the nation, lost to Kansas 77-75 would be equal parts foolish and premature.
Because this isn't Duke. These Blue Devils are like the seat-fillers at the Oscars, making sure there are bodies on the floor until the stars return.
And truth be told, the replacements weren't exactly terrible. Despite Allen's shooting woes, despite a heavy whistle from the officials on both sides, the undermanned Devils rallied late against Kansas, turning what looked to be a Jayhawks walkover into an uncomfortable finish for a Kansas team in need of a little morale boost after being stunned by Indiana last week.