The family piled into their cars around 11 a.m. Tuesday. Frank Mason Jr. did the math and inspected the GPS. The drive from Petersburg, Va., to West Virginia University, he figured, would take close to five hours. Maybe a little more.
The family did not want to be late. At 7 p.m. Eastern time, No. 1 Kansas was facing No. 11 West Virginia at WVU Coliseum, and the family of Frank Mason III, the Jayhawks’ junior point guard, had their best opportunity to be at a game in the flesh. This was not quite a homecoming game, but it would have to do.
Nearly 11 hours later, after an eight-hour drive, a hazardous winter storm, a gridlocked college town and a college basketball upset, Mason Jr. stood on the floor of West Virginia’s home arena, reflecting on an exhausting day. His son had played perhaps the worst game of his college career, finishing with an uncharacteristic seven turnovers and just 12 points — six of which came on late threes. The Jayhawks’ guards were undone by West Virginia’s relentless pressure defense. They had lost for the first time since Nov. 17. Mason Jr. was disappointed, of course, but at least he and the family had made it.
“We got stuck in the traffic,” he said. “We didn’t get here until about a quarter after 7.”
In fact, Mason Jr. said, his family didn’t get to their seats until the under eight-minute timeout of the first half. In all, there were close to 25 people in the Mason traveling party, and it was easy to wonder if their presence — and totality of a nerve-wracking travel day — had any effect on Mason III, who spent part of the pregame receiving updates on his family’s status.
“That’s a possibility,” Mason Jr. said, when asked if his son might have been distracted by his family’s travel. “I’m quite sure.”
The younger Mason, who was not available to speak to reporters after the game, would have likely shot down any excuses. His father would do just that later Tuesday. So did his head coach. But his performance was so out of the norm that it was easy to wonder what happened. Before Tuesday, Mason had committed 24 turnovers in 15 games, cementing himself as the Jayhawks’ steady hand, the most valuable piece in a backcourt with another All-Big 12 candidate in Wayne Selden and another standout in Devonte’ Graham.
Just three days earlier, in a victory at Texas Tech, Mason had finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and five assists — and even that performance seemed understated. Eight days prior, he chased Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield around Allen Fieldhouse for an entire second half and three overtimes, registering what KU coach Bill Self called the most impressive 5-for-20 shooting performance he’d ever seen in his life.
Fast forward to Tuesday night. As the Jayhawks dropped to 14-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big 12, they learned plenty of hard lessons. But none, perhaps, was more glaring than how valuable Mason can be for this team.
Unlike past Kansas point guards, such as Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson or Naadir Tharpe, Mason has been the model of consistency during his sophomore and junior seasons. A year ago, he scored in double figures in 21 straight games, sparking a KU offense that struggled to score inside. In his career, he had committed five turnovers just three times — at Florida as a freshman; at Temple last season; and against Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament. All three resulted in Kansas losses.
On Tuesday, Mason finished with four turnovers in the first half, which matched a season high, before finishing with a game-high seven. In the moments after the loss, Self credited West Virginia guard Jevon Carter for his defensive performance. The Mountaineers specialize in hounding opposing guards, and this was no exception. As such, Self did not seek to make excuses for Mason. But he did wonder about the circumstances of Tuesday, including the weather and the large contingent of family that came to Morgantown.
“You start worrying about if they can get here, and that kind of stuff,” Self said. “I said (to Mason): ‘Hey, we’ll let you know when they get here.’
“But I don’t think that was it. But that kind of stuff bothers me, because this is the only chance they have to see him play. I don’t think that was it. But he wasn’t himself.”
Mason’s father seemed to agree. As he stood on the floor at WVU Coliseum, waiting to see his son, a group of family members milled about, waiting to hand out some postgame hugs.
“He had a bad game,” Mason Jr. said. “He knows he did, and he’s just got to shake it off and do it all over again.”