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. — Tom Izzo’s intense sideline demeanor and the success that accompanies it this time of year has become synonymous with the NCAA Tournament.
The 22-year Michigan State head coach has navigated the Spartans to seven Final Four appearances and a national championship, so anyone who follows college basketball recognizes him and MSU as a distinct brand.
Before Kansas (29-4) attempts to send Izzo’s Spartans (20-14) home earlier than the young bunch from the Big Ten planned, several of the Jayhawks gave their impressions of the hall of fame coach and his history of March Madness victories (47-18 all-time).
“He’s a great coach,” said KU freshman Josh Jackson, who was heavily recruited by Izzo before he opted to play for Bill Self at Kansas. “He’s always gonna coach his guys to be tough. That’s why I think he’s always got a tough team year in and year out — and this year he does. And I feel like he really knows what he’s doing. He’s had a lot of guys come through his program, and I feel like just off of his coaching ability, any team that you give him he’s gonna find success and, you know, make the best of what he’s got.”
Jackson said he felt starstruck when he first met Izzo, as a young high school standout in the state of Michigan, around the age of 14. The legendary coach attended one of Jackson’s games.
“I’d been watching him for my whole life, basically,” Jackson shared.
A Portland, Ore., native, Kansas senior center Landen Lucas didn’t necessarily grow up in awe of Izzo. But the old school big man certainly enjoyed the tough style displayed by MSU’s many successful teams through the years. The idea of bruising in the paint versus the Spartans on Sunday night at BOK Center has Lucas fired up.
“It’s cool,” Lucas said. “I feel like it’s a school I would’ve enjoyed playing at, because of the way they play and their style. Their known for that kind of stuff — getting extra possessions.
“It’ll be fun for me to play against them. It usually is,” added Lucas, who also went up against Sparty in 2014 and 2015. “And I’m looking forward to it.”
A Cleveland prep who grew up in Big Ten country, KU forward Carlton Bragg Jr., too, is fully aware of Izzo’s impressive résumé.
“He has a great program, great legacy behind him,” said Bragg, a KU sophomore who at one point was offered a scholarship to MSU. “He develops his players really good, just like Coach Self, as well.”
MSU big men are associated with toughness in the paint, and Bragg expects nothing different this March, even if, like Self, Izzo hasn’t had his traditional lineup. Freshman Miles Bridges plays much the same role as his friend Jackson does at KU, in a four-guard starting lineup.
“They’re pretty aggressive,” Bragg said, adding the Jayhawks expect the Spartans to give KU their best shot. “Nick Ward (6-foot-8 freshman forward), he’s playing great basketball right now, coming off a big game versus Miami. He’s gonna be a challenge down low, and we’ve got to just keep him off the glass.”
The name Izzo, Kansas freshman Mitch Lightfoot added, conjures up images of grit and offensive rebounding.
“Doing all the little things, working their butt off,” Lightfood responded when asked to characterize Izzo’s Spartans. “You think of Draymond Green, stuff like that, players like that. Really athletic players. You know, Miles (Bridges) is super-athletic. But overall, really hard-working teams.”
The more you think about it, the more you realize the college basketball world should have seen a Michigan State “upset” of Kansas coming at the Champions Classic.
Sure, the No. 4 Jayhawks headed to Chicago with a higher ranking than No. 13 Michigan State. And, yes, KU had more recognizable returning players on the floor than MSU.
But Tom Izzo’s players — senior guard Denzel Valentine in particular — had winning experience on their side.
Look at the core of Kansas veterans — senior forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, and junior guards Frank Mason III and Wayne Selden Jr. This is their third season together, playing key roles in KU’s rotation. While all of them have produced their share of memorable moments and helped Kansas continue its string of regular-season Big 12 titles, they haven’t done much damage in big non-conference games away from Allen Fieldhouse.
Facing Michigan State at the United Center is on par with a Sweet 16, Elite Eight or even Final Four matchup in March. This group has yet to learn how to win on that stage.
Freshmen in 2013, Ellis and Traylor played a combined 20 minutes in KU’s Sweet 16 loss to Michigan at Cowboy Stadium.
Mason and Selden, of course, have never gone any deeper in the NCAA Tournament than the Round of 32. And the past two years, Ellis and Traylor played much larger roles for KU teams that flamed out in the first weekend of March Madness.
As for Valentine — you know, the guy who put the Spartans on his back and delivered a monster triple-double of 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists? He helped guide Sparty to the Final Four this past spring. Valentine and company knocked off Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville on the way to the national semifinals.
KU’s core of veterans has wins over Eastern Kentucky and New Mexico State in the past two postseasons, and losses to Stanford and Wichita State.
Valentine, like Ellis and Traylor, played in a Sweet 16 as a freshman. But he and MSU followed that up with a trip to the Elite Eight his sophomore year and a 2015 Final Four appearance.
Twice Tuesday night, down 13 in the first half and trailing by 11 in the second half, it seemed the Spartans didn’t have the depth or size to knock off Kansas. What they did have, though, was a talented star who knows what it takes to win those type of games.
Shot selection and defensive mistakes led to KU blowing its double-digit lead, but being unfamiliar with how to prevail in those types of games — away from Allen Fieldhouse — had to contribute to those mental errors.
The Jayhawks have four months to keep evolving and improving (and, who knows, maybe KU wins that game if Cheick Diallo is available) but this core of veterans has to find stability and consistency on both ends of the floor for Kansas to achieve all of its goals, come March of 2016.
The college basketball season is less than a week old, but thanks to the Champions Classic, in Chicago, fans don’t have to wait any longer to see some of the nation’s top programs going head to head.
Bill Self’s No. 4-ranked Kansas Jayhawks take on Tom Izzo’s No. 13-ranked Michigan State Spartans Tuesday (approximately 9 p.m., on ESPN) at United Center, right after No. 2 Kentucky takes on No. 5 Duke.
Self and Izzo, of course, are plenty familiar with each other. Izzo has a 6-5 edge facing Self (1-0 when Self was at Tulsa, 2-3 when Self coached Illinois and 3-2 since Self took over at KU).
Michigan State has won three of the last four matchups with the Jayhawks, who beat the Spartans in Orlando last Thanksgiving weekend, at the Orlando Classic.
Kansas ran into little resistance in its season-opening, 109-72 thumping of Northern Colorado on Friday, but points won’t be nearly as easy to come by in game No. 2. Michigan State, which opened with an 82-55 home victory over Florida Atlantic limited FAU to 33.9% shooting and blocked 12 shots.
As usual, Izzo’s team dominated the glass in its debut. FAU only secured 5 offensive rebounds on its 39 missed field goals, and MSU snatched 35 defensive rebounds (53 total).
“We did enough work, but we know we’re nowhere near where we’re going to be,” Izzo said afterward, “and yet I think there were enough bright spots. At times, we showed we could be pretty good.”
Considering Izzo has taken MSU to seven Final Fours, opponents can always expect a fight out of the Spartans. And that’s exactly what a KU team with Final Four aspirations of its own will get Tuesday night.
Here are the Spartans the Jayhawks should be worried about headed into the early-season showdown.
No. 45: G Denzel Valentine | 6-5, 220, sr.
Easily the most complete player this season for the Fightin’ Izzos, senior guard Denzel Valentine led MSU with nine assists in the season opener against Florida Atlantic. Oh, yeah. he scored 13 points and pulled down 8 rebounds, too.
Valentine is the leading returning scorer (14.5 points), rebounder (6.3) and passer (4.3 assists) from MSU’s 2015 Final Four team.
One of four unanimous selections to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team, Valentine messed around and got a triple-double (14 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in MSU’s first exhibition, against Northern Michigan.
Valentine is a threat behind the 3-point line, too. He made 102 from deep last season, connecting on 41.6%.
Valentine might not seem like one of Izzo’s all-time great players (yet), but with 114 career games played at MSU, Valentine is on pace to become the program’s all-time leader in games played — 32 more will do it….
… He also needs 46 assists and 184 rebounds to become the only Spartan in program history to finish in the top 10 in both categories. Plus, Valentine’s 163 career 3-pointers currently ranks him 7th in school history.
While the Jayhawks spent part of their summer winning the World University Games, Valentine played for USA at the Pan American Games, where the U.S. won bronze.
No. 11: G Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. | 5-10, 175, soph.
Sophomore point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn only averaged 2.2 points, 2.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 19.4 minutes as a freshman, but is bound to play a much larger role for the Spartans in his second season.
MSU went 13-4 when Nairn started last year. His addition to the starting unit helped in the NCAA Tournament, as the Spartans advanced to the national semifinals.
Not your typical college basketball guard, Nairn is more of a driver than shooter. He only took 10 3-pointers in 758 minutes as a freshman, making 3.
Nairn scored 8 points for his career high at Rutgers, as a freshman. He scored 7 points and passed out 4 assists (with 2 turnovers) vs. FAU on Friday.
No. 5: G Bryn Forbes | 6-3, 190, sr.
Likely Michigan State’s most dangerous 3-point shooter, senior guard Bryn Forbes drained 3 of his 4 attempts in the season opener, giving him at least 1 made 3-pointer in 93 of his 104 career appearances in a MSU uniform.
If you include the Spartans’ two exhibition games, Forbes has made 14-of-21 3-pointers in three appearances (two don’t count) this season.
Forbes started 24 games last season, and averaged 8.5 points in 26.2 minutes.
By hitting 42.7% from 3-point range last season, Forbes ranked fourth in the Big Ten.
In his career, the senior has knocked down 212 of his 512 3-point tries (41.4%).
No. 2: F Javon Bess | 6-5, 220, soph.
An injury to his right foot shortened Javon Bess’ freshman season, when he only got to play in 12 games.
Bess averaged 2.7 points in 12.3 minutes while trying to acclimate himself to the college game.
Izzo thought enough of Bess to start him in three Big Ten games — vs. Maryland, Penn State and Nebraska — before the injury derailed the forward’s freshman season. Bess averaged 5.0 points and 3.0 rebounds in 18.3 minutes in those starts.
With 9 points against FAU, Bess matched his career high.
No. 10: F Matt Costello | 6-9, 245, sr.
More of a shot-blocker and rebounder throughout his Michigan State career, senior big man Matt Costello led Sparty with 15 points in the season opener against Florida Atlantic. That was just 2 shy of his career high of 17.
With 2 more blocks, Costello (105 career denials) will move into No. 5 in the Michigan State record books. If Costello can block 38 more before the season ends (he blocked 48 last season), he’ll sit alone at the top, and surpass Branden Dawson’s mark of 142.
Costello only started six games last season, and averaged 7.0 points and 5.2 rebounds in 20.4 minutes.
An effective scorer inside, Costello made 59.8% of his shots as a sophomore and 57.9% of his field goals last year.
No. 23: F Deyonta Davis | 6-10, 240, fr.
A big man with the skills and toughness that just scream Michigan State basketball, freshman forward Deyonta Davis became the third Spartan in team history to post a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds) in his college debut, vs. FAU.
When KU gets the ball inside, it likely will have to worry more about Davis than Costello. The freshman swatted away five blocks in his first game with MSU.
Davis’ monster wingspan of 7 feet, 2 and 1/4 inches, and max vertical jump reach of 12 feet and 1/2 inches make him an absolute terror around the rim.
No. 14: G Eron Harris | 6-3, 185, jr.
If the name Eron Harris sounds familiar to Kansas basketball fans, it’s not because the junior guard played well in recent MSU-KU meetings. This is Harris’ first season with the Spartans after transferring from West Virginia.
Another 3-point threat for Michigan State, in his last season at West Virginia, Harris scored 17 points and made 3 of 9 from downtown in a loss at Allen Fieldhouse (in 2014). Later that season, he torched KU for 28 points and nailed 5 of 7 from deep in win at WVU.
In that 2013-14 season, his most recent after sitting out last year as a transfer, Harris started 32 games for West Virginia, averaging 17.2 points per game (fourth in the Big 12).
Harris ranked third in the Big 12 in both 3-point shooting (42.2%) and free-throw percentage (85.6%) before transferring.