Jaywalking: Baylor-bound after Yale

Monday, May 22, 2017

If you can’t beat him, recruit him.

Although that’s not exactly how the saying goes, it certainly applies to the Baylor University men’s basketball team. Late last week, Yale University men’s star and Greenfield native Makai Mason officially signed papers announcing that he will be attending the Waco, Texas, school for one year after finishing his Yale tenure.

“The Big 12 is arguably the best conference in the country,” Mason said. “Getting the opportunity to go up against that competition every time you take the court, and showcase your skills at that level is a great challenge.”

Mason missed his entire junior season this past winter after suffering a foot injury during a scrimmage with Boston University. He will finish off his senior season at Yale and earn his degree before transferring to play a year at Baylor. He will not need to sit a year because the Ivy League does not allow athletes to redshirt for athletic reasons — although he could redshirt for academic reasons. Apparently, it’s their way of showing that they hold academics to a higher standard than athletics.

Because of that rule, players are only able to spend four years at Ivy League schools. Mason was still able to apply for a waiver with the NCAA because of his lost athletic year, so he will have one year of NCAA athletic eligibility remaining.

That basically opened up a bidding war for the star point guard, who really burst onto the scene during the 2015-16 season, when he led Yale in scoring and helped the team clinch an its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1962. He really jumped into the national spotlight when he led the 12th-seeded Bulldogs to a 79-75 upset over fifth-seeded Baylor in the tournament opener, scoring 31 points in that game.

Mason could have withdrawn from Yale this past season to preserve his fourth year of eligibility. But because the foot injury occurred just prior to the start of the season and the fall semester was already more than half over, he decided to finish out the fall semester, which cost him his eligibility.

The point guard had interest from a number of the national elite basketball programs, which is a nod to his abilities. He and father Dan heard from a Duke program that was the team to eliminate Yale in the NCAA Tournament after the Baylor win. He also heard from this year’s national runner-up Gonzaga, as well as a Notre Dame program that is a perennial contender in the ACC. But after visiting the Baylor campus in late April and meeting with Bear’s coach Scott Drew, the decision was made.

The family said that after looking closely at all their options, Baylor seemed to be the best fit for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason they chose Baylor was how they felt about Drew. Throughout the process, the Bears coach remained very approachable and sincere, according to the family.

“The decision just came down to being very comfortable with the coaching staff,” Makai Mason said. “They were very helpful throughout the process.”

“The coaching staff at Baylor was incredibly welcoming, you could tell that there was a heartfelt desire to have him in the program,” added Makai’s father, Dan Mason.

Dan Mason also said that Drew, entering his 15th year with the program, knows exactly what he is getting in Makai. After Yale defeated Baylor in last year’s tournament, Drew said in the postgame that his team had watched several Yale games and knew they needed to try to stop Mason, but that they just could not.

The family also said that the team structure fits very well around Makai. Baylor star point guard Manu Lecomte is graduating, leaving a glaring hole in the backcourt for a Bears’ team that will have a very impressive front court. Bringing in Mason to run the point and also give the team a dangerous perimeter shooter, something the team has not really had under Drew, should have Baylor in contention to win the Big XII.

“We believe the program has phenomenal big men and can be a high-charged offense,” Dan Mason said. “They’ve had a lot of success at Baylor during Drew’s tenure, making the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 numerous times.”

It’s true that Baylor has been one of the elite programs in the Big XII during the past decade. Drew has guided the team to the NCAA Tournament in four straight seasons and has made the tournament six times since 2010, missing only twice. The team has been seeded third four of those years, and has reached the Sweet 16 four of those six years (including this past season), and reached the Elite 8 twice.

One final reason that the family chose Baylor was to help Makai get a shot at the NBA after his collegiate days are over. The Masons know that 6-foot-1 point guards are not highly sought-after NBA prospects. But in a league when playmakers and sharpshooters are becoming more and more important regardless of their size, Makai fits the mold. Getting a year to showcase his skills at a high level, should give him his best chance of getting a look.

“Coach Drew believes that Makai is going to go to the NBA and I know if someone believes in you to that extent, it’s going to help you succeed,” Dan Mason said.

Before any of that, Makai will play one more season at Yale and there is a lot to be excited about. Mason was recently named a team captain for the upcoming season and it will not be shocking if the team is named the preseason favorite in the Ivy League. Last year, the Bulldogs came in second in the Ivy League Conference Tournament and that team played without Makai and remains nearly intact coming into next season.

There’s a lot to be excited about for Franklin County’s college basketball star over the next two seasons and beyond.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.