Kansas finds a leader in Frank Mason III

AUSTIN, Texas -- Forget the layup and focus on its meaning for Kansas and sophomore Frank Mason III, the solemn, tattooed leader the program needs.

The Jayhawks. On the road. Facing a Texas team that had whipped them by double digits a year ago in the same building and added more size in the offseason, about the same time the Jayhawks lost a pair of lottery picks.

It was Saturday afternoon in Austin on a warmish day that finally felt like Texas following a frigid stretch. The Jayhawks were leading but not feeling safe. And that’s common in a conference with six, seven or perhaps eight NCAA tournament teams.

Deep in the second half of No. 11 Kansas’ 75-62 win at No. 17 Texas, Mason got the rock and scrambled for a vacant plot on the Frank Erwin Center’s orange interior, just to the right of the second Roman numeral on the “XII” stamp positioned horizontally below the charity stripe.

Mason, who did not commit a turnover on Saturday, darted to the rim and scored. Mason hit a big shot. Mason led.

Kansas 62, Texas 52 with 4:49 to go -- 50 seconds after the Longhorns had cut the Jayhawks’ lead to six.

“Well, he’s been the most valuable player we’ve had, without question, especially when [Devonte Graham] went down, he really picked us up,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “He played well today. I wouldn’t say great. Down the stretch, he played great. He’s been fabulous. He’s probably surpassed what we thought he would be this early in his career.”

By that point in the game, the Jayhawks -- who’ve won 10 conference titles in a row -- had established that although the Big 12 climate is tough, they’re still Katharine Hepburn at the Oscars. For the 11th consecutive season, Kansas has settled into a first-place slot in the league.

The most uncertain element of Kansas basketball throughout this brilliant decade of dominance has been tied to the uncertainty of the most important position on the floor. Name the point guard, and there’s probably a related event that involves a beet-red Coach Self berating him.

There were questions about Kansas entering this season. And of course, most of them concerned the program’s perennial point guard problem. Who would play the position? And then, Graham suffered a toe injury. Wayne Selden struggled. Conner Frankamp transferred.

Mason? He navigated the roster with tact. He encouraged his teammates. He bonded with them. And on the court, he performed. He didn’t demand a leadership role. He just proved that he deserved it.

“I just had to rationalize in my mind the things I need to do and what Coach needs me to do,” Mason said, “and try and go see him in the office as much as possible and go over the things he wants me to do on and off the court to be the best leader that I can.”

Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre are both NBA prospects. Perry Ellis will end his career as an All-Big 12 honoree. Mason could be forgotten or overlooked as voters distribute postseason accolades, though.

Not in the locker room.

“He’s always talking to us in the locker room,” Ellis said. “It might not be as a whole. He’s pretty quiet. But he’s going up to people in that way and talking to people.”

Days prior to Saturday’s game, Texas hung a “Beat Kansas” sign in its locker room. That’s not abnormal. The Longhorns place a new sign behind the quaint glass display prior to each game. But “Beat Lipscomb” doesn’t carry the same density.

Everyone in Austin -- and Ames and Stillwater and Norman and Morgantown and Manhattan -- knows that Kansas still runs the league. Rick Barnes admitted as much earlier this week as he spoke with reporters. If you want the Big 12 title, you have to go to Lawrence and snatch it. Somehow.

That seemed possible, and maybe even likely, a month ago.

In December, Kansas looked vulnerable. The Jayhawks lost to Temple by 25 points. Alexander and Oubre barely seemed ready for the NBA Development League. Graham was injured. Self was frustrated.

On Saturday, the Jayhawks played like champs. Alexander’s first dunk attempts were blocked by Myles Turner and Connor Lammert. Assistant Jerrance Howard challenged the big man early. His response: “I got it.”

Alexander was relentless the rest of the game, as he finished with 15 points and nine rebounds. Ellis made 50 percent of his shots. Brannen Greene broke that Texas zone with a 4-for-5 clip from the 3-point line.

Mason (12 points, four assists and zero turnovers) led the Jayhawks through that final stretch in a tough road game. And that’s the difference between the champs and the rest each season.

You have to win games like this to earn a ring.

You have to battle in those contentious final minutes without unraveling.

You have to remain committed to the tactics and strategies that worked throughout the game as an opponent launches a counterattack, especially on the road.

Texas tried. The Longhorns played with more energy in the second half. They tried to swarm Mason and his teammates. It didn’t work. Mason never committed a turnover.

“He’s been a press break,” Greene said, “by himself.”

And a leader for everyone else.