SALT LAKE CITY — Graduate transfers are all the rage in college football and basketball these days, but the issue when someone approaches your program, as Baylor coach Scott Drew explains it, is that the potential newcomer often wonders if inquiring coaches know exactly how good he is.
When it came to Baylor and Makai Mason, there was no question just how much game the senior guard had.
Three years ago Mason, then a sophomore guard at Yale, torched the Bears for 31 points in the NCAA tournament, ending fifth-seeded Baylor’s season in a 79-75 upset.
“A lot of times when people grad transfer they want to know, ‘Do you really know my game? Do you know how good I am?’” Drew recalled, laughing. “It took us taking an L to be able to explain, yes, we know how good you are and what you can do.”
Saturday, ninth-seeded Baylor (20-13) meets No. 1 seed Gonzaga (31-3) in the second round of the NCAA tournament with a berth in the West Regional on the line. The Zags, considered to be the top offensive team in college basketball, have a grad transfer of their own in Geno Crandall from South Dakota State.
Asked if he’d have any problem bringing in a player who had just ended his season, like Baylor has down with Mason, Gonzaga coach Mark Few deadpanned, “Not if you had 31 on us. Geno lit us up for 28 and took us to overtime on our home floor, and I didn’t have any problem bringing him in.
“It’s a great, pretty strong evaluation if you can see how he plays against your guys in game conditions,” Few said.
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Three years after sending the Bears home, Mason, a Greenfield, Mass., native, doesn’t have any great reason for winding up in Waco. He played just one game in the previous two seasons due to injuries at Yale, and when he decided he wanted to graduate transfer, Baylor somehow wound up on his list. It ended up being his only visit.
His new teammates had their hesitations.
“I was like, ‘Why’d we get this guy? Why?’” laughed King McClure, a senior guard who was one of the only holdovers from the 2016 NCAA loss. “Coach Drew asked me how I felt about it and I was like, ‘He’s pretty good, he’s proved that.’”
Mason has been key for the Bears this season, originally picked to finish ninth among the 10 teams in the Big 12. He averages a team-best 14.9 points, shoots better than 80 percent from the free throw line and has handed out 89 assists.
“With only three returning lettermen and so many first-year guys, it’s a calming influence,” Drew said of Mason. “He doesn’t get rattled, he plays with so much poise and confidence. He’s like a security blanket for everybody out there.”
Thursday night in Baylor’s first round win over No. 8 seed Syracuse, Mason went 7-of-14 from the field, scoring 22 and handing out four assists. Drew joked afterward that he liked this Mason performance in the NCAA tournament better than the last one, because of the uniform Mason was wearing this time. When they walked into the arena Thursday night before the game, Drew told Mason, “It’s great going in with you today rather than going against you.”
This time around has been better for Mason, too.
“Basically not playing basketball or two years, something that you love so much, to have that taken away from you is really a struggle,” Mason said. “This is kind of a culmination of everything. The hard times to get back here just make it a little more special.”