One of the coolest things about collegiate athletics is when a relatively unheralded recruit develops into one of the country’s best players. College basketball has experienced this a few times in recent years with the likes of Trey Burke at Michigan, Victor Oladipo at Indiana and Doug McDermott at Creighton, but the case of 2016-17 RTC National Player of the Year Frank Mason III, though, is particularly unique. The Kansas point guard from Petersburg, Virginia, originally signed with Towson before a failing grade in a state-mandated government class torpedoed that plan. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the young player, as his stock rose considerably during a post-graduate year at Massanutten Military Academy (VA). Kansas was looking at a variety of point guard options at the time, but it was not until Cat Barber signed with NC State, Chris Jones went to Louisville, Demetrius Jackson went to Notre Dame, and Jordan McLaughlin went to USC that head coach Bill Self was willing to pull the trigger on Mason. That stroke of good fortune resulted in the development of a standout player who became a three-time all-Big 12 player and an All-American during a very successful four-season run in Lawrence.
While Mason was already a very good starting point guard during his sophomore and junior seasons, he took a superstar turn this season. What the dynamic playmaker lacked in stature – he stands at just 5’11” – he made up for it with a knack for making big plays and coming through in the clutch. Not only did Mason lead the Big 12 in scoring at 20.9 points per game, but he also became one of the country’s most reliable three-point shooters at 47.1 percent mark behind the arc. The performance that perfectly highlights how dominant Mason was this year came in Kansas’ regular season finale at Oklahoma State — in a battle with Cowboys’ point guard Jawun Evans, Mason finished with 27 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in an all-around effort. The floor leader turned in another virtuoso performance last week during the Jayhawks’ run to the Elite Eight. In their dominating Sweet Sixteen victory over Big Ten regular season champion Purdue, Mason controlled the entire game to finish with 26 points (9-of-11 FG and 4-of-5 3FG), seven assists and seven rebounds.
While Kansas’ season ended unexpectedly in a disappointing loss to #3 seed Oregon, it is difficult to characterize the Jayhawks’ season as a failure. Self’s team took home its 13th straight Big 12 regular season title – and considering its stark lack of depth, especially on the interior — this one was as difficult as any of the previous 12. The most important component of Kansas’s team success, though, was the steadying influence of Mason. The same Mason who was signed to play college basketball at Towson. The same Mason who ended up at an unknown military academy because of an academic misstep. The same Mason who needed several strokes of luck to wind up at Kansas, but made the most of the opportunity that he was given. College basketball success stories can be overblown and hyperbolic, but Mason’s rise to our 2016-17 RTC Player of the Year is truly one for the history books.