Blair Kerkhoff

Blair Kerkhoff: KU’s Frank Mason looking to go where Wilt didn’t

KU's Frank Mason delivers his farewell speech on Senior Night

KU senior point man Frank Mason delivers his farewell speech to a packed Allen Fieldhouse after the Jayhawks beat OU 73-63.
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KU senior point man Frank Mason delivers his farewell speech to a packed Allen Fieldhouse after the Jayhawks beat OU 73-63.

In this season of award shows, Frank Mason continues to put in his bid as leading man in a dramatic series.

The Kansas guard fought through emotions on Senior Night, his final home game in Allen Fieldhouse, and helped the Jayhawks to a 73-63 triumph over Oklahoma on Monday with 23 points and six assists in what has become a typical Mason game.

Kansas came back from 12 down with 10 minutes remaining, and the opponent doesn’t seem to matter anymore. The Jayhawks tend to dig themselves in a hole, usually by double digits, before storming back.

The Big 12 championship had been locked up, and KU’s postseason odyssey will soon begin. But there’s an additional mystery to be solved this season. Mason is looking to become something Wilt Chamberlain never was, and Danny Manning only partially became.

College basketball’s consensus national player of the year is an award that has eluded one of the game’s most storied programs.

Mason should change that. KU coach Bill Self put in his plug as he introduced Mason for his senior speech.

“I don’t know if there’s been a player tougher than Frank Mason to wear the crimson and blue,” Self said. “He’s the best guard I ever coached and this year’s national player of the year.”

Later Self said he’d like to see Mason win at least one of the major awards. Add them up, and there are seven that are widely recognized. The Associated Press, NABC and Sporting News have top individual honors, along with those named for some of the game’s icons: James Naismith, John Wooden, Oscar Robertson and Adolph Rupp.

Fans weighed in, chanting “MVP, MVP” in the final minute. With 9.8 seconds remaining, Mason, with his parents and 5-year-old son Amari watching dad play at KU for the first time, was subbed out in a curtain call as tears streamed down his face.

Kansas guard Frank Mason said he doesn't think about individual honors, just making KU better.

The case for Mason is his consistency and clutch moments. He’s scored in double figures in all but one game this season, and his averages stand at 20.3 points, 4.9 assists and 4.1 rebounds. His three-point percentage of 50.0 leads the Big 12 and is a testament to his work ethic. Mason shot 32.7 from deep as a freshman.

His game-winning jumper against Duke in the second game was a season tone-setter, and the Jayhawks wouldn’t have posted recent death-defying triumphs over West Virginia and Baylor that paved the way for the program’s 13th straight Big 12 title without Mason’s all-around play.

The race appears close among Mason, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, Villanova’s Josh Hart and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. Some years, the top awards distributed to multiple players make sense, and this could be one of those seasons.

Still, Mason should be a slight front-runner, and not just the best player on the newly minted top-ranked team theory. He is on track to become Kansas’ first 20-point-per-game scorer since Wayne Simien in 2005, and only the third since Manning in 1988. He’s the favorite to become the Big 12 player of the year.

KU coach Bill Self said he hopes guard Frank Mason can land a national player of the year award.

His back story also would play well on the awards circuit. Mason signed a letter of intent to Towson State out of Petersburg, Va., High. But he suffered a bout of senioritis, failing a class, and enrolled in prep school. His play and options improved and Mason joined the 2013 KU recruiting class that included Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden, Brannen Greene and Conner Frankamp. Mason, the only player on this year’s team from that class, was the lowest-rated prospect.

Winning top national honors can also require fortunate timing.

In years when a Kansas player could be considered the nation’s best, someone else was deemed a little better. Thomas Robinson dominated the conference in 2012, but the national awards rightfully went to Kentucky’s Anthony Davis.

In 1997, Raef LaFrentz was the top player on a team that spent nearly the entire season ranked first. That also happened to be Tim Duncan’s senior season at Wake Forest.

In retrospect, the case can be made for Kansas suiting up the nation’s top player twice, in 1957 and 1988. And the Jayhawks still come up short in the trophy case.

In the mid-1950s only United Press International, out of business since 1996, selected a player of the year. It had to be difficult then with no television presence for the game, but there could be no argument with some of the choices, like San Francisco’s Bill Russell in 1956 and Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson in 1958.

The 1957 decision was interesting to say the least. The honor went to Columbia guard Chet Forte, who was outstanding for a team that finished 18-6 and third in the Ivy League. Forte, who went on to television fame as the first director of “Monday Night Football,” averaged 29.7 points as a senior.

Averaging 29.6 points and 18.3 rebounds that season was Chamberlain. As a sophomore, he led the Jayhawks to a conference title and 24-3 record that ended with a triple-overtime loss to North Carolina in the NCAA title game.

Chamberlain made all six media All-America teams that year, and Forte made three of them.

If Chamberlain and Kansas felt slighted by the call that year, nobody said much, if anything. But if arguably the greatest player in KU history, having the better of his two varsity seasons, wasn’t good enough to become national player of the year, who would be?

Manning, sort of. By 1988, the number of major player of the year awards had grown to its present total, and Manning won three of them — Naismith, Wooden and NABC — in what probably stands as the most productive season in school history, one that ended with the national title. Bradley’s Hersey Hawkins took the other four awards.

Two other Kansas players have won a top national honor. Getting a slice of the attention were Drew Gooden in 2002, when he shared the NABC honor, and Nick Collison a year later, when he was chosen top player by the NABC.

With top player voting occurring over the next few weeks, Mason appears to be headed in the right direction to grab more than a piece of the prize. Not that he’s carving out room on his trophy shelf.

“With me, it’s all about the team,” Mason said. “I’d rather win the national championship than be player of the year.”

For Kansas, both would work.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

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