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Frank Mason III is Kansas’ next folk hero

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Mason came full circle at the Champions Classic in Kansas’ huge win over No. 1 Duke.

NCAA Basketball: Champions Classic-Duke vs Kansas Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Frank Mason III’s introduction to being a full-time starter doubled as a reality check for the pressure that comes with playing at the highest levels of college basketball. Mason was a sophomore in November of 2014 when Kansas traveled to Indianapolis to take on Kentucky in the Champions Classic. For whatever Mason goes on to accomplish playing the game, at least he knows things will likely never be as bad as they were that night.

The game was built up as a showcase of elite freshman talent. Kentucky had four top-25 recruits in Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, and Tyler Ulis, while Kansas was unveiling blue-chippers Kelly Oubre Jr. and Cliff Alexander. This might have been a meeting of two top-five teams, but it was anything but a fair fight. Kentucky came away with a devastating 72-40 win in a game where the Wildcats had as many blocks (11) as Kansas had field goals.

Mason finished the night 1 of 10 from the field while getting a crash course in what it feels like to play a truly dominant team.

Mason returned to the Champions Classic on Tuesday, now a senior and not the least bit intimidated lining up against a team many believe boasts the greatest collection of talent since the Kentucky squad that decimated his Jayhawks two years earlier. There were once again more highly touted players on the floor, but no one was better than the 5’11 Mason. He controlled the game all night and hit a dagger in the final seconds to give Kansas a victory over the No. 1 team in the country.

Mason finished with 21 points and five assists on 8-of-13 shooting. It was a performance that came on the heels of an excellent season debut vs. Indiana, when he dropped 30 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds in a close loss. Every season has players that blossom into full-blown stars as seniors and Mason appears to be that guy two games into the season.

Mason came to Kansas as part of the greatest recruiting haul of Bill Self’s career, but at that point he was merely an afterthought. Kansas’ class of 2013 was led by Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid and also featured another McDonald’s All-American in Wayne Selden. Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene were also in that class and considered top 100 recruits in their own right. To look back at that group now, Mason seems like a huge outlier as a three-star point guard who only joined the Jayhawks after originally committing to Towson.

Wiggins would go on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft after one year in school and Embiid was taken at No. 3 even with troubling injury issues. Selden was a headliner for three years before deciding to turn pro in the spring, while Frankamp transferred to Wichita State and Greene ended an up-and-down career by turning pro.

Mason is the last man standing and Self couldn’t be more pleased. A player who was once an afterthought and could have been reasonably assumed as a stopgap until Self landed his next five-star point guard is now the most important player on one of the best teams in the country. He has scoring instincts that can’t be taught and he’s developed as a heady playmaker during his four years in school. It’s also clear that Mason isn’t scared of the moment, regardless of how many future NBA stars he’s playing with or against.

Josh Jackson will be the player pro scouts flock to see at Kansas this year, and rightfully so. When it comes to Kansas’ chances at winning the national championship, though, no one will have a greater impact than Mason. As he came full circle at the Champions Classic on Tuesday, it was clear Mason isn’t just an overachiever, he’s one of the very best players in college basketball.