Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
No. 3 Kansas Focused on No. 2 Baylor, Not Distractions
By DAVE SKRETTALAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The one place Kansas guard Frank Mason III and his teammates can find a reprieve these days seems to be the basketball court, where the third-ranked Jayhawks can be defined only by their play.
Off the floor, distractions and controversy abound.
News surfaced last week that police were investigating a reported rape at McCarthy Hall, where the basketball team and other students live. No suspects have been identified in connection with the alleged incident the night of Dec. 17, but five members of the team have been identified as witnesses. During the investigation, police discovered drug paraphernalia — two glass smoking devices with residue inside. Sophomore forward Carlton Bragg Jr. was suspended indefinitely last week, and on Monday he was formally charged with misdemeanor possession and ordered to appear in court March 3.
Then, The Kansas City Star reported that sophomore guard LaGerald Vickmay have struck a female student two years ago. The university’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access recommended Vick receive school probation after investigating the case, though he was never charged with a crime.
None of that casts a particularly positive light on the powerhouse program.
Still, the Jayhawks managed to compartmentalize all those issues last weekend, when they knocked off then-No. 4 Kentucky at Rupp Arena. And that could give them a big boost of confidence heading into an even more crucial showdown with second-ranked Baylor on Wednesday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
“We tell the guys to focus on what we can control,” explained Mason, a senior and the Big 12’s scoring leader. “Our job is to go to school, do our work and play basketball. Just focus on those things, everything else will take care of itself.”
It helps that the Jayhawks (19-2, 7-1) are loaded with veterans.
Mason shares the starting backcourt with junior guards Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk, while senior Landen Lucas patrols the post. Even freshman swingman Josh Jackson plays with maturity well beyond his years, giving Kansas one of the league’s most experienced teams.
“I think (Frank) and Devonte’s leadership is vital, and Landen,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I think our guys draw confidence from those three and their words. Frank isn’t a big talker, Devonte says more, but Frank sets the tone. He’s an energy giver, more than anything.”
Perhaps it was only a coincidence that Mason showed up to media availability Monday wearing a blue T-shirt championing the Jayhawks’ incredible streak of 12 consecutive Big 12 championships.
After a loss last week at West Virginia, the Jayhawks find themselves tied with the Bears (20-1, 7-1) in the conference standings. And with a schedule that still includes a trip to Baylor and a visit from the Mountaineers, it becomes imperative for the Jayhawks to defend the home court if they want to match the record set by the UCLA teams of the 1960s and ’70s for consecutive league titles.
Then again, the home court advantage means more at Kansas than most places.
The Jayhawks have won a nation-leading 53 straight home games, all but three of those in the hot, deafening confines of Allen Fieldhouse. Self’s record there is 216-9.
“You have to address it,” Self said of the tight conference race. “To me, I’ve said it all along, the Kentucky win wasn’t as big as the West Virginia loss, and certainly if we don’t play well Wednesday it totally negates the good the Kentucky game did.”
The Bears, who needed a big second-half rally to top Ole Miss last weekend, have had all kinds of problems getting through Kansas over the years. They’ve won just four of 31 matchups and have never won at Allen Fieldhouse, where 13 of their 14 losses have been decided by double digits.
Then again, none of those Baylor teams was off to this kind of start.
“They’re a total team,” Self said, “and a lot of times teams have an identity — it could be scoring more points. We’re trying to find ours. But their team identity is they don’t let people score. That is what they do. We’re going to have to run very good offense.”
That’s a challenge that Self and the Jayhawks welcome, though, because it means they can focus for a short period on basketball. This is still a team with the talent and aspirations of winning a national championship, regardless of whatever distractions may be happening off the court.
“We accept every challenge,” Mason said. “I think the pressure of making it 13 straight (Big 12 titles), it helps us moving forward for when it really matters, and that’s in the postseason.”
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.