KANSAS CITY, Missouri – Kansas guard Frank Mason and his teammates kept thinking the Jayhawks were going to mount a comeback against Oregon in the Ducks’ 74-60 Elite Eight win. But as Oregon maintained a double-digit lead for most of the second half, time was running out.
Kansas has turned its past two NCAA tournament games from close contests to routs in a matter of seconds with second-half blizzards. Surely, when Kansas cut Oregon’s lead to six after a three from Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk with 2:43 to go, the rally was on, right? No.
As Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey threw the ball towards the rim with one second left on the ensuing possession, four Kansas players, including its senior point guard, converged on the basketball in the lane. In the alternate universe where Kansas advances to its first Final Four since 2012, Mason comes down with the ball and sprints the other way for a bucket. Or even a three to make it a one-possession game.
“If we would have got the ball on that possession, it gave us a chance to make it a one or two possession game,” Mason said.
Instead, the ball somehow escaped the grasp of Mason and his teammates and found its way to Oregon’s Jordan Bell.
“We just kept believing, we just couldn’t get it done,” Mason said. “I think we cut it to six with like 2:50 left and me and [teammate Josh Jackson] kind of tipped the ball and they ended up grabbing it and that’s when they got it up to eight or nine and just took off from there.”
The deficit, to be precise, became nine after Dorsey drilled a three with 1:51 to go. The dreams of a comeback extinguished, the final seconds of Kansas’ season and Mason’s career were spent full of hopelessness.
Mason has been Kansas’ metronome throughout the season, breaking double figures in all but one of Kansas’ 36 games in 2016-17, and scoring at 20 or more points 23 times. When Kansas has needed a big shot, the odds are Mason has taken it (and made it).
Friday, Kansas coach Bill Self didn’t hold back with the praise of his point guard who averaged five assists and four rebounds a game while also leading his team in scoring.
“Frank Mason has had the best college season anybody I’ve been around by far,” Self said. “The things that he has done to be a point guard, to be totally unselfish, to play both ends, to lead, to be tough, to be an iron man, and your team experience success and all he does is average 21.5 and gives your team its personality. It’s been an unbelievable year for Frank.”
But, as LeBron James showed in his first run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a basketball team can’t survive on one great player.
Kansas entered halftime down 44-33 thanks to two crazy threes by Dorsey in the half’s final minute. But without Mason’s scoring, that 11-point lead could have been 20. The presumptive All-American and possible Naismith Award winner had 17 points while teammates Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson, who sat for 10 minutes because of foul trouble, took two shots combined.
But there was still the second half to play; a period Kansas has owned not only in the NCAA tournament but throughout the entire season. KU had won seven of the nine games in which it faced a double-digit deficit before Saturday night. Eight in 10 wasn’t out of the question until Bell’s rebound.
“We just waited too late to try to come back and fight,” Jackson said.
The contributions from Graham and Jackson never really came. While Jackson — who called the second foul called on him in the first half “complete bullcrap” — scored 10 points, Graham’s only three came via the free throw line.
Mason couldn’t do it all for another 20 minutes either. After shooting 6 for 11 in the first, he was just 2 for 9 in the second half. Kansas as a team was 5-of-25 from three, bedeviled by bad shooting luck and Oregon’s zone defense.
Kansas and Self are bedeviled by the Elite Eight too. The loss to the Ducks is Self’s fifth defeat in seven appearances in the Elite Eight. Like Saturday night, all but one of those losses have come to teams seeded lower than the Jayhawks.
The upsets are, of course, a product of Kansas’ regular season success. You don’t win 13 straight regular season Big 12 titles on accident. And even though it’s harder to have success in a single-elimination format than in an 18-game season where there’s some margin for error, it’s entirely fair to say Self’s teams have under-performed in the postseason.
With Mason at the helm and the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit in Jackson around for a likely one-and-done campaign, 2017 was supposed to be the season where Kansas bucked the trend of early tournament disappearances. Instead, it ended a weekend short and the player who could be the best point guard in Kansas history leaves school without a national title or even a Final Four appearance.
“Frank had the best year of anybody I’ve ever coached, and he’s as tough as anybody I’ve ever coached,” Self said. “He loves this place as much as anybody I’ve ever coached, and I hurt for them. Certainly they’ve left their legacy and certainly should be very proud of their accomplishments.