Let’s just call her “Miss Smith,” which is how Kansas point guard Frank Mason refers to his high school government teacher.
After Mason had committed to Towson, as he was in the process of becoming the No. 2 scorer in the Petersburg (Va.) High basketball history, after he was zeroing in on finishing his high school career and moving on … “Miss Smith” intervened.
She gave him a failing grade in a government class and it threw Mason’s life into disarray.
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He wasn’t going to Towson after all. He was going to prep school in Woodstock, Va., with a mission of getting his academics in order.
But that bad grade turned out to be a blessing for Mason. His Towson commitment vanished and he was open to going anywhere. A strong season with the post-graduate team at Massanutten Military Academy and a high national ranking among guards led bigger schools to come calling.
Mason turned a negative into a positive. He signed with Kansas, bided his time, became a really good player and, this season, has transformed into one of the best guards in KU history, one of the best guards in the country and one of the top candidates for player of the year.
“I think about what happened in high school all the time,” Mason said Wednesday, on the eve of KU’s Sweet 16 matchup against Purdue in the NCAA Tournament. “I talk to some of my friends about it. It just really makes me happy to know how responsible that I became. I’m just thankful she (the aforementioned Miss Smith) didn’t help me take the easy way out by giving me the points I needed and made me work for it. I learned a lot from that experience.”
Did you get that, every high school teenager in the world?
Mason, who will be 23 on the night of the NCAA championship game in Phoenix, learned from a bad experience. He set about never to have something like that happen again. He gained an understanding for the importance of academics in a well-rounded life and, KU coach Bill Self said, earned almost enough credits to graduate from Kansas in 3 1/2 years.
“It’s always been inside of him,” Self said of Mason. “Being around a situation where there’s structure, because obviously individuals come from different situations and backgrounds — it’s remarkable how he’s matured off the court and certainly in the classroom.”
The maturation process on the court has been stark, too. Mason averaged 12.6 points as a sophomore, 12.9 points as a junior and 20.8 points this season.
He’s transformed from a guard always looking to drive into a deadly shooter (47.2 percent from three-point range) happy to take whatever a defense gives him. And those poor defenses mostly don’t stand a chance. Mason is as physical and tough as ever, but with the added nuance of a perimeter game.
Mason is one of the three or four candidates nationally for player of the year honors and it’ll be a mild upset if he doesn’t win. Another of those candidates, Purdue sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan, will be mixing it up with the Jayhawks on Thursday night at the Sprint Center.
I don’t know if anybody saw this coming from Mason, but Self isn’t spitting into the wind.
“Sometimes in recruiting you luck into things,” he said. “He’s one of those things that we were fortunate in. Maybe we didn’t get who we had sought out more and we end up getting a steal. To think about what Frank has accomplished in four years is pretty remarkable and how he’s matured in all areas.”
Self said he worries sometimes that Mason’s backcourt partner, Devonté Graham, doesn’t get as much praise. But the season Mason is having casts a huge shadow. It has even overwhelmed, to a degree, the outstanding freshman season of Josh Jackson.
Mason, though, makes sure to include everyone. He’s averaging a career-high 5.2 assists to go with all those points, made shots and trips to the free-throw line. He’s not going to give anything away defensively, either.
He has exploded into one of the country’s dynamic players on a team that could win a national championship. There’s nothing now that Mason can’t do.
And he gives thanks to “Miss Smith” often, just not in person.
“I don’t really talk to her now,” Mason said. “But she did a great thing for me. Back then at a younger age, I didn’t really understand why that was happening. But now that I’m much older, I’ve got it all figured out and I’m just thankful for everything and the lessons she taught me.”