Rarefied individual achievements and an all-too-familiar feeling of collective disappointment marked a year of highs and one notable low for Kansas basketball.
First the highs, marked by a trio of individual distinctions uncommon even for a program brimming with awards and trophies.
Frank Mason’s remarkable rise to consensus national player of the year — the Jayhawks’ first since Danny Manning in the team’s 1988 championship-winning season — was the headline story this year at KU. The point guard averaged 20.9 points, 5.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds in his senior campaign, becoming the first player in Big 12 history to average 20-plus points and five-plus assists.
The Petersburg, Va., native cashed in on those efforts after the season, completing a sweep of every major award given to college basketball’s top player. In just one year, he transformed himself from off-the-radar pro prospect to the No. 34-overall selection in the NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
Mason earned his spot as an iconic figure in KU lore in 2017, undoubtedly securing a future retirement of his No. 0 jersey and perhaps someday a prominent statue of his 5-foot-11 likeness.
But it didn’t end there for KU.
Mason’s teammate Josh Jackson turned heads and dropped jaws in his lone collegiate season, which resulted in the dynamic freshman being selected No. 4 overall by the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Draft. Jackson averaged 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds playing as the fourth guard in KU’s four-guard lineup, deployed as the Jayhawks’ primary look for the first time in coach Bill Self’s 14 seasons in Lawrence.
As the freshman’s one-and-done season came to a close, Self called Jackson “a model of consistency” and a player with a mental maturity “beyond his years.”
“I think that his intangible makeup is as good as any that I’ve ever been around,” Self said, “especially at that age.”
The third and final major individual distinction for KU came from Self himself, inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 8 in Springfield, Mass. A national champion with KU in 2008 and national runner-up in 2012, Self in the induction said of his career: “The Lord has blessed me and my family beyond measure.”
“There is no way an average player from Oklahoma would be standing before you tonight if his hand print wasn’t all over my life,” he continued. “I will never take this honor for granted, and I will be more humble now than ever occupying an office on Naismith Drive.”
All of those individual triumphs — as well as the team’s record-tying 13th straight regular-season conference championship — helped soften the blow of another season-ending defeat in the Elite Eight, this time in the Jayhawks’ own back yard.
KU, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, breezed through the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament before meeting No. 3 seed Oregon at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. The Ducks were in control from start to finish, trouncing the Jayhawks 74-60 in front of a stunned sellout crowd.
The defeat dropped Self to 2-5 at KU and 2-7 overall in the Elite Eight, where the Jayhawks’ season has ended in back-to-back tournaments.
“Sure it’s going to stick with us,” Self said after the loss to Oregon. “But the one thing that did happen today, it’s hard to admit, the best team won today. Today, I don’t think we ever really put our best foot forward like we have consistently all season long.”
In accepting one of his many honors, the prestigious John R. Wooden Award, Mason indicated he would trade them all for the one thing that eluded his decorated college career.
“This award means everything to me,” Mason said, “but nothing would’ve meant more to me than the national championship.”
FOOTBALL FLATLINES — An offseason of buzz and momentum ended with a stumble and thud in KU football’s second contest, a 45-27 home defeat to MAC foe Central Michigan.
It only got worse from there.
The Jayhawks spiraled to a 1-11 record in David Beaty’s third season, dropping the coach to 3-33 overall and 1-32 against FBS-level opponents. The good vibes garnered from the previous season’s upset against Texas, several high-profile oral commitments in recruiting and an announced $350 million campaign focused primarily on renovating Memorial Stadium evaporated.
Joe Dineen, a junior linebacker and one of the Jayhawks’ lone bright spots as the nation’s leader in solo tackles (7.8 stops per game), said after the team’s last game that if anyone had told him this is how the year would have unfolded, he would have called them a liar.
“I wouldn’t have gone into this season expecting to have the record we had, but that’s the way it went,” Dineen said. “There’s nothing we can do about it right now. We’ve just got to get back, get ready to go and play ball.”
Beaty, given a vote of confidence from first-year chancellor Douglas Girod and, in the immediate aftermath of the season finale, athletic director Sheahon Zenger, before the season said the team should begin to see dividends in his third campaign, that those “dividends are reflected in wins” and that winning is a “requirement for programs to survive.”
He was in no mood to reflect on the lost season after the Jayhawks’ 11th and final defeat.
“Man, I’m a super positive guy,” Beaty said. “I spend very little time thinking about things I don’t control. My wife probably would shoot me, but I’m just not very good with whinin’. I’m about fixin’. I’m just not about whinin’. I’m a fixer, and that’s probably not the best thing for me sometimes, but I don’t have time. My time is to move forward. I’m dealing with the next minute.”