Gainesville, Fla. Nobody can make a freshman point guard play like a rookie quite like a polished senior backed by a frenzied crowd in a building where only a few feet separate the spectators from the participants.
Frank Mason, Kansas University’s super fast, ultra competitive freshman from Petersburg, Va., had his moments Tuesday night in the O’Connell Center, Florida’s on-campus arena. Mason made his first two three-point shots. After taking an outlet pass from classmate Joel Embiid, Mason blew past traffic and looked as fast as Jadeveon Clowney behind the wheel of a car on his way to a tough bucket.
Florida senior Scottie Wilbekin had his moments, too, such as all 36 minutes he was on the floor, varying his pace and making smart plays at both ends. Wilbekin was one of four seniors starting for the Gators, Mason one of four freshmen in the Jayhawks’ starting lineup. The bigger the moment, the better Wilbekin performed for the Gators. He put pressure on KU at both ends and consistently knocked down big shots, finishing the night with 18 points, six assists, four steals and two turnovers.
A hometown recruit, Wilbekin didn’t enter college basketball playing that way. Very few do. He averaged 2.4 points and 1.6 assists as a freshman and 2.6 points and 1.6 assists as a sophomore.
The day will come when Mason competes on the other end of the experience disparity, a senior exposing the youth of a talented freshman. Tuesday night he was on the wrong end of a mismatch, but he’s ahead of schedule and was far from the first talented guard to have a rough night (no assists, five turnovers) as a freshman. In his second game for KU, Mario Chalmers committed seven turnovers in 17 minutes vs. Arizona in Nov. 2005.
In KU’s previous meeting with Florida, on Nov. 25, 2006, the Jayhawks brought a quick, confident relentless competitor of a freshman off the bench to play alongside Chalmers. The reserve was the king of the no-no-no-yes play and sometimes just the oh-no play. Watching him play basketball made the mind drift to picturing him in a satin robe, eyes locked, boxing gloves on his hands, standing in his corner, shaking the tension out of his legs, readying himself for a bloody battle. Sherron Collins triggered the imagination the way Mason does now.
Collins didn’t have it that 2006 night in Las Vegas against the Gators, where he played just seven scoreless minutes and had nothing to show for them but three personal fouls. Three seasons later, Collins was a first-team All-American. No reason to think Mason can’t make the same strides and earn the same accolades.
KU coach Bill Self had the luxury of making a sixth man out of Collins in 2006-2007 because he had a steadier hand at point guard. No frills, few spills junior Russell Robinson kept the ball moving in KU’s half-court offense and, as part of the Jayhawks’ sound man-to-man defense, did a nice job of keeping it from moving.
Collins’ game wasn’t yet refined enough to run the team, but that didn’t keep KU from going 33-5 and all the way to the Elite Eight that season.
There is no Robinson available to enable Self to ease Mason into playing the point, a position foreign to him until this season. Naadir Tharpe is two years ahead of Mason, the same experience gap between Collins and Robinson. So far, Tharpe hasn’t mastered the art of rapid ball movement. He’s a couple of inches shorter than Robinson, not as strong, and doesn’t defend as well.
Self will play some combination of Mason and Tharpe at the point and will continue to play them together for stretches. How much the point guards improve during the season will play a big part in determining whether KU can push its first-place Big 12 streak to 10 seasons and in how long KU’s season lasts.
At the moment, the position is the No. 1 concern for Kansas, off to a 6-3 start.
First nine games of college careers