Even if no combustible extras were hovering over the matchup, no game at Bramlage Coliseum carries the intrigue and clout of a visit from Kansas.
But factor in the residue of Kansas State’s controversial 90-88 loss Jan. 3 at Allen Fieldhouse and stir in the juice from K-State’s upset win at Baylor on Saturday, and this was all the more of a fevered crowd on Monday.
One that Kansas guard Frank Mason decided to tweak and jab before, during and after scoring 21 points to stoke the third-ranked Jayhawks to a 74-71 victory over the Wildcats.
Mason shushed the crowd a few times down the stretch, and afterward he walked off the court pointing to the scoreboard as he was being taunted.
His most defining and memorable action came in the final moments, though, when he sailed over the first row of media seats on the baseline and crashed into the second row of tables.
He instantly got back up, propelled himself off the front table back onto the court to intercept a pass.
Yes, he turned the ball over at the end of the play, but the grit embodied everything coach Bill Self wants this team to stand for.
“I think those plays define seasons,” Self said, later adding, “I think (Mason is) about as tough as any kid I’ve ever been around.”
So much so that Mason is known for his generally grim and stone-faced demeanor.
But on Monday, he found any number of ways to animate the scene and infuse his team with what it needed.
That started before the game, when he evidently took some of Self’s pre-game urgings to heart to try to siphon energy from the Wildcat fans.
As Kansas went through the layup line minutes before tipoff and K-State fans cranked up their, uh, patented anti-KU chant, Mason urged them on.
Mason was “trying to get the crowd into it even more,” he said.
The gesture seemed to backfire some in the early going as Kansas fell behind 20-8 and Mason made just one of his first five shots and turned the ball over a few times.
The Jayhawks stabilized and took a nine-point second-half lead only for K-State to go back ahead 60-59 in the fiercely contested game.
Mason scored seven of KU’s next 10 points, though, to give Kansas a lead it wouldn’t surrender again.
“I’m biased, but he makes big plays, he makes hard shots … (as an) on the ball defender (at) game-point, about as good as there is,” Self said. “He does a lot of things to give a team a chance to win.”
That includes setting a tone with his unfazed and relentless style.
Even if he goes off-kilter, as he was some in a game in which he made just seven of 17 field goal attempts, he has evolved into a player who nearly always provides a contagious example like the one that embodied this victory.
“Never met a guy as small as him and as tough as him,” KU freshman Josh Jackson said. “Plays like that tend to really rub off on all of us.”
All this came on a night when Mason played 38 minutes despite doubtless still being drained from the overtime loss to Iowa State on Saturday.
And it came on a night when KU reminded everyone that of all the things it’s got going for it this season — including the emergence of Jackson (18 points), the versatility of Devonte Graham (seven rebounds and six assists on a night he couldn’t get many open shots), the steadfastness of Landen Lucas and the three-point shooting of Svi Mykhailiuk — maybe its best trait is its find-a-way mindset and expectation of winning.
That’s what Mason most represents in this team, on the court … and off the far end of it, for that matter.
“I just had to hurry up,” he said, “and get back up.”