Late last March, nearly one year before Frank Mason guided Kansas to a 75-56 victory over New Mexico State in the Jayhawks’ NCAA Tournament opener, an aspiring rapper from Virginia logged onto YouTube and uploaded a song.
His name was Derek Minigan, Jr., a 21-year-old who went by the stage name “RedHead,” and the song was a simple ode to a childhood friend — with an equally basic title: “Frank Mason.”
In the last 12 months, the song has remained something of a hidden gem; a cult classic among a segment of Kansas fans, bubbling up to the surface now and then, but never really making a true impression.
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One reason, of course, is that the track contains a not-so-suitable-for-work chorus and some other words you can’t say on the pregame show. But the timing of the release was also a little misguided. The song first appeared on the Internet last spring, just six days after a No. 2-seeded Kansas team fell to No. 10 seed Stanford in the NCAA Tournament round of 32.
The season was over too early, and Mason was still just a reserve freshman point guard trying to find his way.
“I kind of like the song — just the hook,” Kansas forward Jamari Traylor said, sitting in a victorious locker room at the CenturyLink Center on Friday afternoon. “I wish somebody made a song about me.”
One year later, Mason is making sure everybody knows his name. For one day, that meant dissecting New Mexico State for 17 points on six-of-seven shooting, with nine rebounds and four assists. As No. 2 seed Kansas, 27-8, prepares for a showdown with No. 7 Wichita State, 29-4, on Sunday, Mason could become the Jayhawks’ most crucial character in a potential March run.
“We just need him to play great,” freshman Devonte’ Graham said. “He’s the leader. We feed off of him.”
On Friday morning, the Jayhawks gathered for an early shootaround at 6:45 a.m. They were pitted against a long and athletic New Mexico State team that was perhaps a little under-seeded as a 15, and Kansas coach Bill Self wanted to ensure his team had the right level of energy in an opening game that had caused Kansas trouble in recent years.
Mason bounced onto the practice floor, beginning a layup line before the balls were even on the court.
A few hours later, as the Jayhawks gathered in the locker room, Traylor could tell that the normally stoic Mason was feeling something in the minutes before his first NCAA Tournament as Kansas’ starting point guard.
“He was in here hyped up, getting everybody right,” Traylor said. “And he was just being extra, extra, extra focused. I knew he was going to come out on point.”
On Sunday, Mason will be matched up against Wichita State star Fred VanVleet, a smallish guard who shares Mason’s pit-bull mentality and playing style. In a round-of-32 matchup with layers of intrigue, the Mason vs. VanVleet battle could be pivotal. But first, Mason opened his tournament by cutting up New Mexico State’s zone defense with a blend of deft penetration and prolific shot-making.
Mason’s first shot of the day was a three-pointer that thudded on the back of the rim and fell in the hoop. Two hours later, the Jayhawks had drilled nine of 13 from three-point range, ripping the lid off the basket and setting it ablaze.
“It was nice to see the ball go in the basket,” Mason said.
With Mason causing havoc on ball screens and penetration, sophomore wing Brannen Greene snapped a shooting skid with two three-pointers. Junior forward Perry Ellis appeared slightly more confident on his sprained right knee, finishing with nine points in the first half. Ellis cooled off in the second as Kansas cruised to a double-digit win. But really, Friday was about Mason’s stubborn will and the Jayhawks making shots.
“I put a lot on Frank,” Self said.
As KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend walked along a corridor inside the CenturyLink Center, he conceded that, yes, this is the point guard he envisioned when he found Mason playing in a back gym at an AAU event in Las Vegas in 2012. Mason, a native of Petersburg, Va., was a mostly forgotten prospect, headed to Towson before some academic issues forced him to attend prep school for a year. Townsend showed up to watch a guard from Los Angeles who would eventually land at USC. He fell in love with Mason instead.
“Frank kicked his butt,” Townsend said.
Two years later, Mason is the rudder on a Kansas team with designs on a deep March run. For a program that thrives on top recruits, the emergence of Mason has breathed life into a backcourt that handcuffed Kansas at times during the last two years.
“Those kind of kids,” Townsend said, “the kind that aren’t McDonald’s All-Americans and turn into being decent players — it kind of makes you feel better.”
Sitting in the Kansas locker room after Friday’s game, Mason took a seat between Traylor and sophomore guard Wayne Selden. His expression was as it always is — stone-faced. In most moments, it is difficult to know what Mason is feeling — if anything. It’s something that Self has talked to him about. Show more emotion, Self will say. And it is something Mason is working on.
But Friday, when the subject of his song came up, Mason was pretty much Frank Mason.
“Yeah,” he said, calmly. “I like the song.”