Mason ’18 making most of NCAA Tournament spotlight
The emergence of Yale men’s basketball point guard Makai Mason ’18 as a superstar did not suddenly take place on a Thursday afternoon in mid-March, when the gutsy sophomore scored a career-high 31 points and led the No. 12-seeded Bulldogs to a first-round NCAA Tournament victory over No. 5-seeded Baylor.
In fact, it did not even begin at the onset of the season, when Mason took over the starting role vacated by Javier Duren ’15, who is now playing professionally for Aris Leeuwarden in the Netherlands.
Mason’s stardom has been in the works for years, well before the guard ever stepped onto the court in a Yale jersey, and March Madness is proving to be the perfect stage for Mason to showcase his skillset.
“I recently read an article listing the best 68 players in the tournament and Makai wasn’t listed,” Duren said. “In all honestly, I didn’t expect him to be because only a handful of people know how gifted he is, so it’s great that others are realizing. But for me, I knew he was going to be a great player back when he was in high school … Even then, you could see how fearless he was, and it’s that fearlessness that’s allowed him to elevate his game so quickly.”
In addition to his career-high 31 points, Mason notched six rebounds and four assists in Yale’s 79–75 upset win over No. 5-seeded Baylor on Thursday, which was also the Bulldogs’ first-ever NCAA Tournament victory.
Mason is fueled by his competitiveness, according to Yale head coach James Jones. When the Greenfield, Massachusetts native was in high school at the Hotchkiss School, Jones witnessed first hand the work ethic and drive of his future point guard, even in settings as benign as high school workouts with Mason’s father.
“I believe his father had on some ugly yellow sneakers, so it was kind of like an old man’s pickup game,” Jones said. “And [Mason] was so intent on winning that pickup game, that fire, that desire, that commitment to being good, you could just see it in his eyes. He had already committed at that time, but at that point, I knew I had somebody special the way he reacted.”
Yet until Thursday afternoon, when CBS announcer Chris Webber labelled Mason “a bad little man” on national television, most of the country had never heard of the Ivy League champion’s leading scorer.
Listed as 6-foot-1 inches tall and weighing 185 pounds, Mason does not possess the imposing physical features that distinguish basketball players as potential superstars. He is not outspoken, he does not dominate the headlines nor does he much care about his social media presence.
While fellow Elis commonly engage with social media, even using Snapchat during Selection Sunday, teammate and forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 said at a press conference on Friday that he has taken it upon himself to create a Twitter for the reluctant Mason.
Mason simply plays, and he plays hard. And though that style often results in hard falls to the hardwood and repeated contact in the paint, it also allows his play on the court to speak louder than any 140 characters could.
“I guess I’m kind of used to [the physicality] at this point in the season, getting thrown around out there,” Mason said following his career performance against Baylor. “But yeah, I came in with a couple bumps and bruises, and I’m sure I’ll have a few more by the end here.”
This season, Mason earned first team All-Ivy honors for the first time, joining his senior teammates, forward Justin Sears ’16 and Sherrod. Entering Saturday’s second-round game against No. 4 seeded Duke, Mason is averaging 16.3 points and 3.7 assists per game, both team-highs.
With some questions surrounding Mason’s ability to take over for Duren, who was a first team selection in 2015, Mason quickly silenced any doubters. He opened the season with 23 points against Fairfield before scoring 21 the next game against Sacred Heart, and he averaged 15.8 points in Ivy League play.
In one of Yale’s most critical contests all season, Mason knocked down a clutch field goal, a signature pull-up jumper from the elbow, with 5.4 seconds remaining to force overtime against Dartmouth. The Bulldogs went on to defeat the Big Green, 76–71, with 16 points coming from Mason.
Performances such as that 16-point outing versus Dartmouth culminated in the best performance of Mason’s collegiate career on Thursday.
“Through the course of the year, progressing through the Ivy League, I was able to hit a couple big shots,” Mason said. “I guess that’s helped me get some momentum going into [Baylor], and I was able to play pretty well.”
In Saturday’s game against Duke, Mason will have extra motivation. Early on in high school, Mason drew looks from Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, but later faded from the Blue Devils’ radar.
While Krzyzewski noted that he was “very impressed with [Mason]” and is “not surprised about what he’s accomplished,” Mason ultimately wound up in the Ivy League instead of the lauded Atlantic Coast Conference, while the point guard that Duke did land, Tyus Jones, helped lead Duke to the national championship as a freshman last season before departing for the NBA.
“You know, whenever you’re not recruited by a team or you think you should be, it obviously gives you a little bit of an edge,” Mason said on Friday. “Coach K came to one of my AAU tournaments and I didn’t play that well. It’s easy for him to move on, which I definitely understand. But, yeah, they ended up getting Tyus Jones, who was a pretty good player as well, so I can’t really argue.”
Mason has already had one chance to square off against Duke, as the Elis battled the Blue Devils last November. When the schedule was announced last spring, Mason acknowledged he would “definitely relish the opportunity and go in there with a bit of a chip on my shoulder.”
In the 80–61 Duke victory, Mason struggled from the floor, shooting just 5–15 from the floor, though he finished with a respectable statline of 13 points and eight assists. Heading into Saturday, Mason has a chance to one-up that performance, and perhaps even one-up his remarkable first round outing.
With a victory Saturday, Mason and the Bulldogs would advance to the Sweet 16.