Antoine Mason's father knows best

"You suck."

That was the brutal truth from a father who expected more.

Those were the harsh words of man who scrapped and fought during a 13-year NBA career.

That was the response Anthony Mason, the former New York Knicks standout, offered when his son Antoine, now a sophomore star for Niagara, became disheartened by poor performances on the New York City circuit when he was in high school.

Convinced that Antoine had become a bit overconfident after dissecting lesser competition in the suburbs, Anthony took his teenager to "the hood." There, Antoine discovered moves that worked in Westchester failed in Rucker Park runs and gyms that hosted matchups between the top AAU teams in the city.

But Antoine, who calls his father his "best friend," accepted the critique and reconfigured his game.

"He got obliterated," Anthony told ESPN.com. "He was getting schooled. I guess my epiphany for him at that time was he didn't quit. He kept on working. When I saw that drive in him, I knew there were no limits. If you really love your kid, you'll be honest with them so they can get better."

Antoine got better. Much better.

He's second in the MAAC in scoring (17.8 points per game in conference play) and eighth in free throw shooting (78.9 percent in conference play). He's also averaging 1.2 steals per game.

Antoine credits his father's scrutiny for his improvement.

Over the summer, the two analyzed film together and noticed tendencies that suppressed Antoine's full potential when he was a redshirt freshman (he missed the bulk of the 2010-11 season with a foot injury).

He rushed shots. He never seemed comfortable at the free throw line. He didn't look for the gaps when he penetrated. And he refused to utilize his strength -- his father's greatest asset -- to maneuver on the floor.

"Since high school, I could always score," Antoine said. "But actually understanding easier ways to score is something I picked up this year." Added Anthony: "He was guessing, and he wasn't playing naturally."

The smooth undertones of the second-year talent's arsenal are tangible now. He's more accurate at the free throw line (64.8 percent last season to 79.5 percent overall this season). He's taking smarter shots (27.3 percent from beyond the arc last season to 34.2 percent this season). And he's taking advantage of his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame.

"I pick and choose my spots when I can attack," Antoine said.

The tweaks in Antoine's game have changed the fortunes of a program that seemed lost two months ago.

November and December didn't go well for the Purple Eagles. They lost six of their first nine games. But coach Joe Mihalich watched his young team grow (his top two scorers are sophomores, and the roster features six underclassmen) through those struggles.

Today, Niagara leads the MAAC with a 9-1 record. The Purple Eagles commit turnovers (9.9 per game in conference play) on just 16.7 percent of their possessions, 15th in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy. And their plus-7.5 scoring margin leads the conference. A win over Iona on Thursday would clearly establish Niagara as the team to beat in the MAAC. The thought was a fantasy after a 83-72 road loss to Iona on Nov. 28.

That's the past, though.

The same young guys who endured a 14-19 (8-10 MAAC) campaign last season refused to settle for the same result in 2012-13. Plus, 6-8 center Devon White is available these days after missing the first eight games due to an Achilles injury.

And Antoine is a more fluid ballplayer who's embraced his role as catalyst and leader.

"He is a student of the game," Mihalich said. "He is a junky. He has a passion for the game. I think he's learned that when you take good shots, you're going to make good shots."

Anthony attends most of Antoine's games. And he's no different than other parents.

He wants his son to perform to his capabilities. Well, he expects it.

"It's only hard when he's not doing what I think he can do," Anthony said. "He's playing well. I'm probably the hardest one on him. I want him to fulfill his potential."

Tough is really the only thing that Anthony knows.

He, John Starks and Charles Oakley ran to fights, not from them, when they played together on the Knicks in the early '90s. He wasn't the team's most talented player.

But he rose from the third pick in the third round of the 1988 NBA draft (he was cut by the Portland Trail Blazers) to a lengthy stint in the NBA that included an All-Star appearance. But Mason bounced around various pro leagues before he found solid ground in the NBA.

According to him, all he had was his work ethic.

And that's the principle he conveys to Antoine.

"Ain't nobody gonna give you nothing," Anthony tells his son.

So Antoine just takes it.

"Seeing how hard he went, it gave me the inspiration to just play," Antoine said.

And as a result, Niagara just wins.