Last year’s weakness is this year’s strength, thanks to a man with a theme song.
Last year, Jayhawk fans had a problem that they thought about constantly. Where would KU have been with a decent point guard? This year, the consensus is that they have a much better issue to think about: Where would KU be without a decent point guard?
At Kansas, success in basketball is expected. While a 25-10 season would be a historic accomplishment for the majority of Division I basketball programs, for the 2013-14 Kansas Jayhawks, it was the most losses in a single year since 2000. It was a season that began with the commitment of a once-in-a-decade prospect, and after defeating a top-five Duke team in the second game of the year, the Jayhawks appeared to be one of the favorites to win the National Championship. They shook off some growing pains in December and rolled through January and February by starting 13-2 in Big 12 play.
They then lost four of their last seven games, culminating in a second-round NCAA Tournament upset to a double-digit seed. A season that began so promising ended in such premature disappointment.
But why? One day, we’ll look back on the 2013-14 Jayhawks and ask ourselves how Bill Self had Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid and still managed to lose double-digit games. We’ll also know the answer: point guard play.
Naadir Tharpe, the junior point guard on an absurdly talented but overwhelmingly young team, was constantly referred to as the key for the Jayhawks. When Tharpe clicked, so did the Jayhawks. When he hit the wall, KU was bounced in the first weekend. The inconsistent Tharpe was a ticking time bomb all season long, and despite the hopes that the flashes of brilliance would return in the NCAA tournament, it didn’t happen. Tharpe struggled with his jump shot in March, he refused to drive the ball, and he made passes that made even more hairs on Bill Self’s scalp fall out. As people watch Andrew Wiggins steamroll to a rookie-of-the-year NBA award, Kansas fans still ask themselves what the Canadian phenom could have accomplished with a better floor general.
Wiggins was just one year too soon for Kansas.
Enter 5’11 point guard Frank Mason from Petersburg, Virginia. Last year, freshman Mason was the reserve to Tharpe, averaging 16 minutes per game to Naadir’s 29. The rookie point guard was called a “bulldog” from the beginning of the season due to his ability to explode to the rim and score in the paint. He seemed to be a better leader than Tharpe, and his defensive ability was vastly superior. However, inexperience at playing the position through high school and frequent freshman mistakes prevented Mason from ever making a real impact for Kansas in 2014, and when the Tharpe-led Jayhawks sunk before the second weekend, fans questioned if either Tharpe or Mason would be the answer to KU’s point guard problem.
Tharpe transferred in May 2014, and the starting spot was Mason’s to lose. His season began rough with a disastrous 1-10 performance against Kentucky, and once again, fans began familiar talk. Forums and radio talk shows discussed if Mason was the worst point guard Self had ever had – even worse than Tharpe. He’s responded with a resounding statement, scoring at least 10 points in 23 of his last 24 games. He’s a near-lock for All Big 12 first team. He’s the heart and soul of the country’s third youngest collegiate team, and he always seems to make a tough shot when Kansas needs him the most. Coupled with freshman Devonte Graham, point guard play has turned into the biggest strength for the 2014-15 Jayhawks.
If you compare the stat lines between ’14 Tharpe and ’15 Mason, it’s not an overwhelming difference in the main statistical categories you would normally look at for judging point guards:
’14 Naadir Tharpe: 29.4 mins, 8.5 points, 5.0 assists, 2.1 turnovers, 82% free throw rate.
’15 Frank Mason: 33.3 mins, 12.4 points, 4.3 assists, 2.0 turnovers, 76% free throw rate.
However, Mason’s ability to do the little things is what could ultimately prove to be the difference for KU come March. Mason averages nearly four rebounds per game, where Tharpe snagged just two. Where Tharpe struggled as a jump shooter, particularly from three-point range (43% FG, 37% from 3), Mason’s experience as a shooting guard has been vitally important for the Jayhawks (47% FG, 44% from 3).
The biggest difference between the two could be their defensive tendencies. Mason’s ability to shut down the opposing team’s floor general on a nightly basis has been crucial for the Jayhawks as they navigate through a Big 12 schedule full of terrific point guards. For example, he forced Iowa State’s Monte Morris, the country’s leader in assist-to-turnover rate, into a career-worst four giveaways back in Kansas’ victory on February 2. Where Tharpe would frequently get undressed by the opposing team’s point guard (not just nurses from Gardner,) such as Marcus Foster, Marcus Smart, and Juwan Staten each scoring at least 20 points en route to handing Kansas a trio of late-season losses last year, Mason’s defense and ability to create turnovers was pivotal in Kansas’ comeback win against Baylor last weekend.
Tharpe began the Big 12 season last year on such a tear that we proclaimed on Inside the Paint that he was a contender for All First-Team Big 12. In the last seven games of the season, when Kansas went 3-4, he shot just 31% from the floor (12/39), 30% from 3 (6/20), and committed 17 turnovers. He wilted down the stretch, and it cost Kansas dearly. Mason, meanwhile, appears to be the biggest chance Kansas has of making a deep tournament run.
Whereas last year fans worried about point guard play the most as March began, this year, it’s the last thing KU has to worry about. Remember, he’s Frank Mason.