University of Maryland men's basketball head coach Mark Turgeon on his teams preparation for the No.1 team in college basketball the Kansas Jayhawks. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
In his senior year of high school, point guard Frank Mason III did a very un-point-guard-like thing: He didn't pass.
Mason failed a government class in the 2011-12 academic year by what he said was just three points, and was ruled ineligible to play in college. Now that he's playing in college — now that he's starring in college — the butterfly effect of one high school class has had profound implications across two states.
In Kansas, the NCAA tournament-favorite Jayhawks got a reliable ball-handler and defensive stopper.
In College Park, Maryland will have to defend him in their Sweet 16 matchup Thursday night.
And at Towson, new coach Pat Skerry was left without a point guard recruit he soon would come to need.
Mason averaged 27.4 points, 3.8 assists and 2.7 steals per game as a junior for Petersburg High in 2010-11, earning Player of the Year honors in Virginia's Central District. In April 2011, Towson hired Pittsburgh assistant Pat Skerry as its head coach. A couple of months later, Mason, a three-star prospect, committed to the Tigers over George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and others. In November, he signed a letter of intent with the Colonial Athletic Association program.
"As a junior, Frank led the state of Virginia in scoring," Skerry said of Mason in a news release announcing the team's class of 2012. "He's a jet with the ball and gets wherever he wants on the court. He's built like a fire hydrant. I love his competitiveness. He's a guy that's a great talent and gets after it on the court. His talent will give us an immediate boost."
Then senioritis struck, and Mason had nowhere to go. He ended up at Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock, Va., along with Maryland junior center Damonte Dodd. His grades improved, his play improved, his options improved. After an impressive summer on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit, Mason chose the Jayhawks in October 2012 over a number of high-major programs. He said he never considered Towson again.
"I always knew I could play wherever I wanted to and with whoever I wanted to," Mason told the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette-Mail in January. "I always thought I was good enough, but at the time, [Towson] was the best opportunity for me coming from where I come from.
"It was a Division I offer and I was excited about it. I knew I was better than Towson, but I was excited to have an offer and I wanted to take it. It was a chance to get out."
Towson had a backup plan at point guard in its recruiting class; Mason was it. The headliner of the haul was Jerome Hairston, rated the No. 18 point guard recruit in the nation and the No. 121 prospect overall by Rivals.com. As Mason got his grades in order, Hairston averaged 9.9 points and 2.5 assists per game as a freshman, good enough for CAA All-Rookie team honors.
But early in his sophomore season, Hairston was suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team. He never again played for the Tigers. Over the past four seasons, Jerrelle Benimon, a forward, has the highest assists-per-game average for the Tigers: 3.6. In 2015-16, forward Mike Morsell had a team-high 2.5 per game.
Last season at Kansas, Mason averaged 12.6 points and 3.9 assists. This year, he's up to 12.8 and 4.6, with starts in all 36 games for the 12-time defending Big 12 Conference champions. He was named second-team all-league for the second straight season and an all-defensive team selection, pairing with former Appalachian State recruit Devonte' Graham to form an unlikely but electric backcourt tandem.
"They're recruited to our place with the same expectations that [Andrew] Wiggins and [Joel] Embiid were recruited to our place," Self told the Topeka Capital-Journal on Wednesday. "When people don't talk about them, that gives them a chip, and I love teams that operate the way."
Maryland point guard Melo Trimble on Tuesday recalled facing Mason a few years ago in an Under Armour showcase camp, back when Trimble was a burgeoning blue-chip recruit and Mason's future in Lawrence was not guaranteed. They'll face off tonight with reversed roles: Kansas and Mason are the ones expected to make it big, while Maryland and Trimble just want to prove their doubters wrong.