In an NCAA Tournament clash featuring two of college basketball’s most thriving programs, a fleeting moment during a dead ball situation became as memorable as any highlight-reel jam or crucial late-game basket Sunday, in Tulsa, Okla.
Well on his way to going down as one of those transcendent Kansas basketball stars, senior point guard Frank Mason III drove to the basket for a first-half lay-in like he has umpteen times over the course of the past four seasons. On this particular strike, the 5-foot-11 dynamo left his counterpart, Michigan State guard Tum Tum Nairn, in a heap out of bounds.
In the aftermath of the play, Mason remained near the baseline waiting for the game to resume. That irked Nairn’s freshman teammate, Miles Bridges, who stepped chest-to-chest with Mason to let him know about it.
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Bridges stared down a good eight inches into Mason’s eyes. KU’s uncompromising, 185-pound leader didn’t as much as blink — almost as if to say, “Bridges, I’m Frank Mason.”
Mason plays at an All-American level nearly every time he steps on the court for Kansas, and that’s one of many reasons the Jayhawks advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 90-70 victory over the Spartans. His bravado, though, as seen when the bigger Bridges tried harassing Mason, gives the Jayhawks an edge, as well.
Kansas senior center Landen Lucas said each of Mason’s teammates know they go to battle with a point guard who won’t show any fear, regardless of his stature.
“We’re all one team, one unit. We’re gonna feed off each other. We fed off of him,” Lucas said, describing how Mason’s interaction with Bridges fired up the Jayhawks.
A predictable smile covered Devonte’ Graham’s face when reminded of Bridges’ failed bullying attempt.
“My boy Frank is not going for none of that,” Mason’s backcourt mate said. “He’s not intimidated by anybody. He thinks he can guard LeBron, so nobody’s gonna intimidate him.”
Watching the scene from the bench at the time, backup big man Dwight Coleby said Mason’s cohorts knew he wasn’t about to back down.
“We was hyped. I was watching like, ‘Yeah,’” Coleby recalled, clapping for emphasis. “‘Let’s go. Let’s go.’”
Lucas revealed the Jayhawks heard plenty of trash talk during their second-round victory. No one ever would accuse Tom Izzo of failing to fully prepare his Michigan State basketball players for any game, let alone one in the postseason. So it must’ve been the Spartans’ idea to try and get in the heads of Mason and his KU teammates. And Bridges’ ploy flatlined.
“I think that’s silly if you’re trying to intimidate Frank,” Lucas said, “because that’s not gonna happen very often. Especially from a freshman. We’ve been through this before. We’ve been through a lot of things and that’s the last thing we’re worried about.”
Bill Self’s Kansas teams often are associated with their toughness, and no one on this year’s roster personifies that trait more than Mason.
“I think we all play with a lot of pride. We all believe in each other, and I think it starts with coach,” Mason said when asked about KU’s grit. “He really gets on to us in practice and he make us compete. And you know, it just carries on to the games. And I’m just proud of the way my teammates played and the great job that my coaches did.”
The image of Mason standing up to Bridges was a lasting one for anyone who saw the game, as well as the Petersburg, Va., native himself. KU’s Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy candidate posted a photo of Bridges’ scare tactic on Instagram after the game, dismissing the notion that someone’s chatter would rattle him.
“I’m about action,” Mason wrote, “like a movie.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Going into any given game, Kansas backup big man Dwight Coleby never knows how much — or how little — head coach Bill Self will decide to use him.
Twelve times so far during his junior season, the 6-foot-9 reserve from Nassau, Bahamas, never ventured to the scorer’s table to check in for the Jayhawks. So one can imagine his surprise and delight when Coleby, after watching the entire first half of KU’s second-round matchup with Michigan State from the bench Sunday at BOK Center, heard his name called in the midst of a tight second half, in the NCAA Tournament.
What began as an opportunity to give starting center Landen Lucas a breather evolved into a much larger responsibility when Lucas picked up his third foul midway through the second half. Before long, Coleby, who entered the game averaging 5.1 minutes and 1.7 points on the season, began finishing defensive stops with rebounds and extending possessions with offensive boards.
Few would have predicted as much prior to tip-off, but Coleby played as big a part in Kansas advancing to the Sweet 16 with a 90-70 victory as anyone wearing a KU uniform.
“He saved my career,” senior center Lucas said after his understudy contributed three points, four rebounds and a steal in 9 second-half relief minutes. “He made some big plays. I’m not trying to go home. We’re trying to win a championship and that’s what it takes, guys being ready and he was ready.”
Two days earlier, Coleby only logged seven minutes in a game that never was in doubt versus UC-Davis, in the opening round. Though he fully understands his role with the team, the backup big said he always hopes to earn more time.
“It’s the brightest stage and I want to play,” Coleby said, when asked how he stays mentally focused while never being sure what will be asked of him, “so I’m just ready the whole time.”
A studious observer, he doesn’t mind doing much of his research from his seat on the bench.
“I just watch Landen, and everything he does and how he defends,” Coleby shared. “Whatever he does, I just try to pick up on it and ask him questions.”
It’s a quality that can be difficult to master but Coleby said he felt prepared long before his coach called his name.
Listed at 6-9 and 240 pounds, Coleby looks more the part of a prototypical Michigan State post player than KU sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr. During one second-half sequence, Bragg couldn’t finish over MSU’s Nick Ward after snagging an offensive rebound. When the teams switched ends of the floor, Ward posted up Bragg, spun off him for a layup and a foul, and cut KU’s lead to four.
Bragg only spent one minute on the court in the second half, and Self said after the victory he probably should have went to Coleby even sooner.
“One thing about Dwight, he's not that tall, but he is strong and can hold his position,” said Self, echoing words he often has used while praising Lucas. “And I thought he did a really nice job of holding his position. And also, his ball-screen defense was super, probably as good as any big guy we had today.”
Exerting yourself while college basketball fans across the country are watching sure beats Coleby’s usual contributions.
“It was great to be in and actually help the team,” Coleby said, wearing a huge smile in the locker room. “All the celebration with the bench is cool and all, but actually being on the court and doing it, it’s way much better.”
After a moment in the postseason spotlight, Coleby said he could feel the crowd’s excitement growing with his hustle plays, which also fueled his teammates in a crucial stretch of the win.
“Yeah, everybody was hyped and jumping up and down,” Coleby said of the support he saw. “It lifted us up, so that was great.”
Lucas told Coleby and the rest of his KU teammates before the game they should be prepared for anything. Clearly Coleby listened.
“It obviously takes a pretty strong mental person to be able to do that,” Lucas said of Coleby’s approach, “and he showed us today he’s prepared for that. And that’s great to see moving forward.”
Added Coleby: “We just needed energy and I brought it.”
Jamari Traylor has watched closely from nearby as a Kansas basketball team made a deep run through the postseason. An NCAA partial qualifier, Traylor sat out his first year in Lawrence, only practicing in the spring semester with what turned out to be a Final Four squad.
But the senior power forward from Chicago never has personally contributed to anything better than a Sweet 16 berth for KU in 2013, his freshman season. Back then, Traylor didn’t have Bill Self’s trust like he does now. Traylor played a combined 13 minutes as the Jayhawks moved past Western Kentucky and North Carolina, and lost to Michigan. He took three shots, made two of them, scored four points, but didn’t even collect a rebound.
Each of the following two seasons, Traylor’s role increased, but Kansas faltered early in March Madness, exiting with just a single tourney victory in both 2014 and 2015.
Traylor, like the most of his teammates, struggled to score inside (1-for-8 shooting) in a 60-57 second-round loss to Stanford his sophomore year, two days after dominating against Eastern Kentucky, with 17 points and 14 boards.
As a junior, Traylor’s season concluded with him contributing four points (2-for-5 shooting) and five rebounds off the bench as KU lost, 78-65, to Wichita State.
Those back-to-back Round of 32 losses don’t fall solely on Traylor’s broad shoulders, of course. KU’s core of veterans — Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden Jr. and Frank Mason III — also played key roles in those season-ending head-scratchers. But Traylor takes ownership in the program’s successes and shortcomings. That’s one reason why, as the Jayhawks head into the postseason this March, the 6-foot-8 leader senses this team can actually live up to KU’s lofty expectations.
“It’s pretty much a different feeling,” Traylor said of the vibe, compared to the other KU teams he has played for. “I feel like we’ve got a group of guys who’s a little more hungry. We’ve tasted defeat in the postseason, so we know what’s around the corner for us. I’m a senior now. Perry’s a senior now. So we know it’s our last opportunity, so we’re more locked in.”
Even before the season began, Traylor thought the final Kansas team he played on could be as good defensively as the one he watched reach the 2012 national championship game.
What’s more, the closer the KU’s veterans get to the NCAAs, the better their defense looks. In Big 12 play, the Jayhawks held opponents to 39.2% shooting. No other team registered better than 42.9% — by both West Virginia and Oklahoma State.
KU’s improving defensive effort, coinciding with the emergence of junior big man Landen Lucas, is a sign of the hunger Traylor described.
“As a younger team, I guess guys probably could feel like we could come back next year or come back the year after,” Traylor explained of the more youthful KU rosters who fell short in past postseasons. “We don’t have that opportunity. I feel like we’re more focused in and we’ve just gotta be in tune, because we know one bad mistake or one bad game we can be over.”
In March, intangibles tend to push teams closer to a Final Four. Self pointed to an immeasurable characteristic when asked what he admired most about this year’s Jayhawks.
“I would say, I would probably never give my teams that much credit for being pretty tough, but I think they are pretty tough in crucial situations,” Self said. “I think that they usually — not always — usually rise to the level of what needs to be done at that particular moment, and, you know, they like each other.”
Ellis may be best known for his soft shooting touch from inside and outside, but Traylor noticed the team’s leading scorer getting tough in the final minutes of KU’s regular-season finale, an 85-78 home victory over Iowa State.
“He’s just a winner,” Traylor said of Ellis. “The last play you could tell, because he put it all out there. He dove on the court. It was the defining moment for the game. It just shows how much you want to win if you do that.”
Traylor, Ellis, Selden and Mason all will have plenty of chances, beginning this weekend at the Big 12 Tournament, to prove with their play if March victories mean even more to them now than they did in the past.
Try to remember the last time someone told you, "The Big 12 is a great basketball league," and you completely agreed.
Hopefully that happened sometime around 2002 to 2004. Because, in terms of overall NCAA Tournament success for the league as a whole, that statement hasn't exactly held true in about a decade.
Quick. Name the last men's basketball team from the Big 12 besides Kansas University to reach the Final Four.
Playing this game in my head, I went to Rick Barnes' 2003 Texas team, led by dynamic, though slight, guard T.J. Ford. Somehow, I skipped over Eddie Sutton's 2004 Oklahoma State team, featuring Tony Allen's amazing all-around game and the at times unstoppable offense of John Lucas.
Point being: It's been a while. It was 10 years ago that a Big 12 team not coached by Bill Self advanced all the way to the Final Four. When Sutton took the Cowboys, Self had just completed his first season at KU.
In the Big 12 men's basketball season review, sent to media from the conference in April, the league highlights its postseason accolades, including its seven bids in the 2014 tourney. And rightfully so. Seventy percent of the conference went dancing and each program got in with a single-digit seed.
But not a one of them — not even Kansas — could make it beyond the Sweet 16 this year. Of course, only two, Iowa State and Baylor, even survived that long.
The Big 12 failed to reach the Elite Eight in 2005 and 2013, as well. But the more telling statistic regarding the league's ability outside of Kansas to contend for a national championship lies in the number of Final Four appearances in the past 10 tournaments by conference teams who don't wear crimson and blue: zero.
In that same span, Kansas reached the sport's ultimate showcase in 2008 and 2012. Meanwhile…
• The old Big East sent six programs — Georgetown, Connecticut, Villanova, West Virginia (now in the Big 12), Louisville and Syracuse — to the Final Four.
• The Big Ten? Five: Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
• The SEC checks in with three: Florida, LSU and Kentucky.
• Three different leagues have produced two representatives: the ACC (North Carolina and Duke), Conference USA (Louisville and Memphis) and even the Colonial Athletic Association (George Mason and VCU).
That leaves the Big 12 in the same tier as the former Pac 10 (UCLA), the Horizon League (former team Butler) and the Missouri Valley Conference (Wichita State), with one program representing their leagues at the Final Four from 2005 to 2014.
Don't forget. No league in the country has reached the same stratosphere as the storied American Athletic Conference, which hasn't existed without one of its teams winning the national championship (Connecticut).
When the Big 12 boasts it is among the national leaders in Final Four appearances, it uses data form 2002 to present. In 2002, both Oklahoma — then coached by Kelvin Sampson — and Kansas made it, and in 2003, KU and Texas represented the league.
That just reads better than the facts from the past 10 years: two appearances, one school.
As long as the flawed RPI exists, Big 12 coaches will continue to reference that as proof their league is one of the toughest around. The Big 12 had the best RPI in the nation this past season. Same goes for 2009-10. It has ranked in the top three in conference RPI seven of the past 10 years.
Big 12 RPI rank, past 10 seasons
— (Source: statsheet.com)
A lot of good that did in a decade's worth of NCAA Tournaments.
The Big 12 rarely has disappointed in January and February, when games are exciting to watch, KU inevitably finishes first and that year's crop of other top dogs beat each other up just enough to lag behind the Jayhawks.
But, really, could one team win the regular-season title — outright or a share of it — 10 years in a row if the league truly was great?
Maybe Texas can end the rest of the Big 12's slump in March of 2015. Barnes' chances improved immensely when KU target Myles Turner, a 6-foot-11 center from Euless, Texas, announced he'll stay in state and join UT's talented Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley, Demarcus Holland, Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix as a member of the Longhorns.
Final Four representatives, by conference, 2005-14
Big East: Connecticut (2), Louisville (2), Georgetown, Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia.
Big Ten: Michigan State (3), Ohio State (2), Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
SEC: Florida (3), Kentucky (3) and LSU.
ACC: North Carolina (3) and Duke.
Conference USA: Louisville and Memphis.
Colonial Athletic Association: George Mason and VCU.
Big 12: Kansas (2).
Pac 10: UCLA (3).
Horizon League: Butler (2).
American Athletic Conference: Connecticut.
Missouri Valley: Wichita State.