MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Over the summer, guard Makai Mason walked into Baylor’s locker room before a workout when he saw teammates huddled up around a TV.
They were watching a replay of the Bears’ upset loss to Yale in the 2016 NCAA tournament. Mason nearly high-tailed it out of the room.
“Yeah, I felt a little weird,” he said.
Weird, because Mason was the star of that game … for Yale.
He went 11-of-11 from the foul line and knocked down two 3-pointers on his way to 31 points during Yale’s 79-75 upset.
What did his new Baylor teammates think?
“Some of the guys were looking at me kind of funny,” Mason said.
Not any more. If West Virginia (9-9, 1-5 Big 12) appears to be headed on some kind of turnaround following Saturday’s 65-64 upset over Kansas, then the same can be said about the Bears (11-6, 3-2), who beat No. 8 Texas Tech 73-62 later the same day.
Mason is a big reason why a youthful Bears team that was picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 is now just a half-game out of first place. He’s second on the team with 29 3-pointers and tied for second with 39 assists. His 14.7 points per game leads Baylor.
West Virginia hosts Baylor at 9 p.m. Monday.
“He’s a quiet guy,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “He lets his actions speak louder than his words. At the same time, he’s very thoughtful. When he does speak, there is usually some deep context to it. Our players love playing with him now. They appreciate his experience and he’s a very humble player.”
So, how does one go from the Ivy League to the Big 12? Not only that, how does one go from scoring 31 against Baylor to becoming Baylor’s leading scorer?
Chalk it all up to a unique Ivy League rule in that the conference does not permit athletes to redshirt.
After Yale pulled off that upset — and then made second-half charge against Duke before coming up short in the second round — Mason broke his left foot before the start of his junior season. He remained in school, but sat out the year. In his first game back as a senior, he broke the foot again and missed the rest of the season.
“Basketball has been a huge part of my life,” Mason said. “It’s something I’m used to doing every single day. It’s a daily routine for me. To have that taken away from me was tough. I leaned a lot on my family and friends and tried to help coach the other guys up as much as I could.”
He graduated with a political science degree, and under NCAA graduate transfer rules, Mason still had a season of eligibility remaining. Drew was quick to make contact with Mason’s family.
“Our recruiting pitch was a little bit different,” Drew joked. “We told him, ‘We already know what you can do.’ I remember telling Makai’s dad that he didn’t have to sell himself to us.”
Mason smiles when recalling his first contact with Drew.
“He told me the least I could do was come down and visit after what happened in the tournament,” Mason said. His impact has been one of consistency. Mason, from Greenfield, Mass., has scored in double figures in every game he’s played this season except one. He’s also had at least one 3-pointer in every game except one.
But there is much more to him than stats, injuries and an Ivy League rule.
In high school, Mason volunteered with classmates to help out at orphanages in the Dominican Republic. He also volunteered time at a local animal shelter in high school.
“The trip to the Dominican is something I’ll never forget,” he said. “Helping other people is something I believe in. We got down there and painted a basketball court for them. It was great to see all of the different reactions, and honestly, there is no better feeling than giving back to others.”
Since torching Baylor in 2016, he’s now giving back to the Bears.
“It was something you can never be fully prepared for,” Mason recalled of Yale’s NCAA run. “Even with all of the practices, it’s tough to be ready for an experience like that. We weren’t used to all of the media attention and the size of the moment, but I think we took it in stride pretty well and made the most of it. It was definitely an interesting run that I’ll never forget.”
Said Drew: “It’s a sensitive topic, because it’s a tough memory for us. But you know what they say, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them,’ right?”
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