Jaywalking: Mason anxious after lost season

Monday, April 10, 2017

When North Carolina defeated Gonzaga in their Division I NCAA men’s basketball national championship nail-biter — one day after South Carolina defeated Mississippi State in the women’s Division I title game — it officially ended the 2016-17 college basketball season.

For Greenfield native Makai Mason, it was a season that never started.

Yale University’s junior point guard missed the entire season after suffering a preseason foot injury that required surgery. That surgery was followed by two months in a hard cast and two more months of rehabilitation that has seen Mason just now getting back into light basketball workouts.

“It’s good right now,” Mason said of his foot. “I’m just starting to get back to be able to do shooting. I’m trying to progress slowly. It may be sore for a couple of days when I do some basketball stuff, and I will take a break. It’s nice to be back on the court.”

Mason became a household name just over a year ago when he helped Yale to the Ivy League regular-season title and the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1962. Then he erupted for 31 points and led the 12th-seeded Bulldogs to a 79-75 upset victory over fifth-seeded Baylor in the tourney opener. That was the first tournament win for the Bulldogs in five trips to the tournament. Mason’s face was plastered across TV screens around the country as he became one of the most talked about players from the first days of the tournament.

The Bulldogs were eliminated in the second round by Duke, 71-64, but Mason was a known-commodity. Shortly after the season ended, Mason declared for the NBA draft but did not hire an agent, giving him a chance to gauge any interest from NBA teams. He decided to go back to school, and over the summer applied for dual-citizenship with Germany after learning he was eligible to play for the German national team. Mason’s mother, Jody Sieben, was born in Mainz, Germany, and never naturalized when she moved to the United States. After playing with Germany, he returned to Yale ready to build upon his sophomore season.

But that never happened. About a week before the start of the season, Mason suffered the foot injury during a scrimmage with Boston University. The injury, which included broken bones and other tears, required surgery and Mason never played a game this winter.

“It was definitely tough,” Mason said. “Coming into the year off of last year, it felt like the perfect situation for me and the team to make another run. It would have been a nice season to be healthy. Definitely tough not to be able to do the things I’m so used to doing on a regular basis. It’s part of who I am.”

While Mason was unable to take part in his normal workout routine, the foot injury did not prevent him from touching a basketball entirely. He said he sat in a chair and did ball-handling drills as much as possible, and made up other drills to challenge himself. Once he got off crutches, he began taking part in some light shooting drills to work on his form.

As for Yale’s season, even though the team lost four senior starters from a year ago, then lost Mason for the season, the Bulldogs still put together a terrific season and came one win away from going back to the NCAAs. This year was the first year that the Ivy League held a postseason tournament. Prior to this year, whichever team won the Ivy League regular-season title earned the automatic bid into the tournament. This year, the top four teams played a two-game tournament for the automatic bid. Yale finished third in the Ivy League and knocked off second-seeded Harvard in the semifinals before falling to Princeton in the championship game.

“I thought the conference tournament was great,” Mason said. “For teams that lose a couple early on in the season, it’s no longer a death sentence. You have the chance to win the tournament. And the atmosphere was great.”

Yale only loses two starters from this season, and one of those — former Northfield Mount Hermon School standout Anthony Dallier — took over for Mason after his injury, so the lineup should be strong for Mason’s senior year.

After he finishes his degree at Yale next spring, Mason will have a decision to make. Because he missed this entire year, Mason is expected to get a year of eligibility back. The Ivy League does not have a redshirt option, but there is a waiver process that should allow Mason to get a year back. Yale also does not allow for fifth-year players, so Mason will be forced to leave the school as a graduate transfer, which means he will not have to sit out a year. He could also turn pro at that time.

And his time with the German national team is not over. Mason has already contacted the team to inform them that he will not be fully healed to play this summer, but he plans to play with the team in the future, possibly at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo if the team qualifies.

The future remains bright, even if his basketball career was put on hold this season. As for coming back from the injury, Mason has no reservations.

“I think I will be better than I was my sophomore year,” Mason concluded.

For someone who helped lead a program to its first NCAA Tournament berth in over five decades and then score a major upset in the process, that is not going to be an easy act to follow. Stay tuned.

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.