Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Mason and Graham chemistry creates critical mass for KU

Devonté Graham, KU players made halftime adjustment on pick-and-roll

Before Bill Self got back to the locker room, KU guard Devonté Graham said the players made a tweak to how they approached their high pick-and-roll play, freeing up Graham and Mason to score in the second half.
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Before Bill Self got back to the locker room, KU guard Devonté Graham said the players made a tweak to how they approached their high pick-and-roll play, freeing up Graham and Mason to score in the second half.

Kansas senior guard Frank Mason is so stoic and speechless he could make the most expressionless of statues look animated. Good luck getting him to laugh or even smile.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, KU junior guard Devonté Graham, radiates exuberance and emotion and can’t help demonstrating what he’s feeling.

“Polar opposites,” Kansas freshman Josh Jackson said, smiling.

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But with the same contagious impact on their teammates — and a maddeningly complementary presence for anyone up against Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region.

Certainly, they were the catalysts as the Jayhawks dissected fourth-seeded Purdue 98-66 on Thursday at the Sprint Center to advance to the Elite Eight against third-seeded Oregon on Saturday — and they’ll be the major X-factors against the Ducks, too.

In swarming and overwhelming the Big Ten champions, Mason reinforced why he’s a national player of the year favorite with 26 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.

In reasserting an essential role that is typically overshadowed by Mason, Graham scored 26 points himself — including 11 in a row in a second half in which the duo alone outscored Purdue 27-26.

With Jackson racking up a double-double and Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk also in double figures, this went from a 33-25 Kansas deficit to a brilliant display of KU’s array of ways to beat about anyone.

KU's Josh Jackson and Landen Lucas spoke in the locker room following their 98-66 victory over Purdue in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 23, 2017. The Jayhawks advanced to the Elite Eight with the win.

Here was a dizzying flurry of dunks, lobs and rebounds (36-29 against a massive Purdue team) and a school NCAA-record 15 three-pointers in a game … all enabled by defense that engaged all gears.

Though he couldn’t help but gripe that Graham had zero rebounds, coach Bill Self liked just fine what he saw on Mason’s and Graham’s stat lines on the box score.

“It was two complete games by both guards,” said Self, adding that the real story was that what they did “defensively, I think, helped create the pace we needed to cause some havoc.”

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That was a particularly big deal in a game largely projected as a clash of mismatches between KU’s speed and Purdue’s sheer immensity — including another player of the year candidate, Caleb Swanigan, and 7-foot-2, 290-pound Isaac Haas.

Even as it lagged behind early, though, Kansas held the trump card in the form of its guards.

“I thought that was silly in a way to talk so much about how we were going to try to handle them inside,” Kansas center Landen Lucas said. “There was less talk … about how they were going to stop our guards.

“And that’s obviously a problem. People are going to figure that out.”

Even if Purdue had an inkling, safe to say it’s certain now.

“We knew were playing one of the best backcourts in the country, if not the best,” Boilermakers guard P.J. Thompson said. “I thought they were awesome. They were getting the matchups they wanted, and they were going by our guys.”

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Added guard Ryan Cline: “If they get in the open court, they’re just going to score the ball. They’re all fast, athletic. They can all shoot the ball. They’re really talented in a lot of ways.”

Starting with the grim Mason and upbeat Graham, who, by the way, carry about the same demeanors off the court as on.

“Exactly the same,” Jackson said, noting that Graham is the most talkative player on the team (along with Carlton Bragg) and that Mason “doesn’t say anything. He’ll give you a little smile or a little laugh every now and then, but it’s kind of rare.”

Kansas sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr. discussed providing momentum off the bench in the Jayhawks' 98-66 Sweet 16 win over Purdue on Thursday in Kansas City.

For a glimpse, consider their moment at the postgame news conference.

Asked about the rhythm and chemistry between them, Mason started talking about players coming off the bench before being nudged that the question was specific to Graham and saying a few generic things about Graham.

With a laugh, Graham picked it up from there, noting Mason “is never going to talk about himself.”

The distinction between them gives KU two different sorts of primary outlets — among others — to rally around:

One of steely resolve, another of infectious enthusiasm.

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“I think they go perfect together … (and they) are perfect for our team,” Jackson said.

Certainly, they fuel a rapid pace, ball movement and playmaking — the stuff of potential national championships with the dynamic supporting cast that KU has around them.

“We’re spoiled,” Self said, adding that “on the perimeter you’ve always got, in my opinion, an All-American-type guard to be the leader and run your team.

“To have two guys out there playing like they’re playing, I think, just gives everybody confidence and it can help totally control the pace of the game.”

Even if their demeanors are completely different.

“But they go so well together,” Lucas said.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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