On an afternoon in early February, Bill Self stood outside the Kansas locker room and began to explain the easiest way to coach Frank Mason, his stoic and stone-faced starting point guard.
There are players that respond to positive reinforcement, players that require constant communication, and players that thrive in silence, left alone to self-correct.
Then there is a Mason, the 5-foot-11 sophomore who requires a more abrasive type of communication.
“He’s ridiculously stubborn,” Self says.
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To properly motivate Mason, Self says, he simply must tell him that he cannot do something. If Mason isn’t attacking the basket with enough aggressiveness, for instance, Self will tell his point guard that there is no way he can beat his man off the dribble. If Self believes Mason is slacking on defense, he needs only to issue a direct challenge.
“All you got to do is say, ‘You can’t stop him,’” Self says.
It’s likely, then, that a similar directive will be issued on Saturday afternoon, when No. 8 Kansas plays host to Texas at 4 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse. Mason will be tasked with guarding Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor, a lightning quick lead guard who leads the Longhorns in points and assists. The formula for handling Texas usually begins with containing Taylor’s penetration. So Self will likely tell Mason that he can’t.
“It’s easy to coach Frank,” Self says.
In a Big 12 season that has been defined by point guards — think Iowa State’s Monte Morris, West Virginia’s Juwan Staten and Baylor’s Kenny Chery — Mason has been a revelation, leading the Jayhawks to the brink of an 11th straight conference title. The Jayhawks, 22-6 and 11-4 in the Big 12, sit just two home victories away from clinching a share of the championship, and of all the players on a deep roster, Mason’s performance at point guard has perhaps been the most invaluable. Entering Saturday, Mason is averaging 12.1 points and 4.3 assists per game. He also plays a team-high 33.1 minutes per game, a load that is compounded by his duties as a primary ball-hander and secondary scorer.
Mason says his body feels good, that the extra minutes haven’t taken a toll, and here’s where it’s impossible to tell if Mason is being honest or just being stubborn. In a 70-63 loss at Kansas State on Monday, Mason finished with just four points while shooting one of eight from the floor. It was his lowest offensive output of the season. It was not, Mason says, a sign that his workload is slowing him down.
“I feel pretty good,” Mason says.
For the moment, Self believes Mason is still capable of more. Perhaps this is partially coach-speak — why put limitations on any player? But Self was also a believer in Mason’s ability before the rest of the Big 12 caught on. One year ago, Mason averaged just 16.2 minutes per game while playing behind then starting point guard Naadir Tharpe. In hindsight, Self says, Mason probably was capable of more. But as a freshman playing behind a junior, he deferred too much.
“I think a lot of it was he just wanted to fit in,” Self says. “I think Naadir led everybody to believe it was his team, and (Frank) just wanted to fit in. I think if Frank were to do it all over, he would have handled last year differently. Not because he was bad at all, but I think he was a little overwhelmed and he was just OK being a piece (of the team).
“But I think if he could go back and re-do it again, he would have said: ‘Forget being a piece, I want to be the guy.’”
This year, Mason has stepped into that role. His minutes have increased, but Mason says he’s put more emphasis on taking care of his body. He’s tried to get more sleep, to eat better, and replenish his body with the right fluids after workouts. If he needs guidance on keeping his body fresh, Mason will usually go to strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy.
“I think he’s better than what he’s played,” Self says. “As good as he’s played, I think he can impact more possessions and get more assists and score more points.”
Some of this goes back to personality. On the court, Mason is a stoic, displaying a facial expression that could be described as monkish, and rarely offering any sort of visible emotion. Off the court, he is mostly the same. During one practice in November, Mason shuffled through a scrimmage with body language that most would describe as nonchalant.
“Mason, is that all you got?” Self yelled.
As Mason sprinted back down court, his speed picked up, but his facial expression remained a blank canvas.
For the moment, Self would like to see more emotion from his point guard. And as March approaches, there are signs that Mason is making incremental progress in this area. Well, there are small clues, anyway. On Thursday afternoon, Mason sat inside Allen Fieldhouse and talked about his next challenge — guarding Texas’ Taylor on Saturday.
“I have to get emotional with him early,” Mason said.
As Mason spoke, his voice remained monotone, his face rather stoic. He was speaking about playing with more emotion, but perhaps that emotion could wait until the game.
“I wish he’d let his personality show a little more,” Self says. “That’s how he is all the time. When he’s happy, he’s stone-faced, and when he’s down, he’s stone-faced.”