NEW YORK -- When Frank Mason's shot went in, I immediately thought about Kris Jenkins. I thought about how that all-time shot from April was a gargantuan moment for college basketball, a sport too often criticized for what it's not rather than extolled for all it is and can be. In Mason's winner, I sensed a carryover effect from an amazing national title game. There is an optimism hitting the horizon of 2016-17 college basketball campaign.
You're waking up feeling it a bit too, aren't ya? It's going to be a terrific season for college hoops, and this is only the beginning.
That 77-75 Kansas-over-Duke thriller which started Tuesday night and ended early Wednesday morning was the first cannon shot of what will become one of the most notable seasons of the past decade. I'm not talking just March. We're not saving most of the fun for then, but we'll get the goods from now until April. Frank Mason and his onion bag will lead our way down the trail.
Mason's shot with 1.8 seconds to lift No. 7 Kansas over Duke gave KU its first victory against a No. 1-ranked team since 2008, when the Jayhawks knocked off UNC in the Final Four. Mario Chalmers was on that 2007-08 title-winning KU squad. He tweeted Tuesday that his team had more talent than this KU squad, and while that's a valid argument, these Jayhawks could wind up being more fun to watch.
Less than a week in, Mason's play must be taken seriously. He's at 51 points in two games, and is first in line for National Player of the Year. You hit that shot, score 21 points and dish five assists against No. 1 Duke, it starts the highlight reel that will run to the end of the season. At the end, we'll look back at five months of what's going to be filled with compelling games played by outrageous athletes and controversial coaches. And Mason kick-started the marathon with a slick, cool step-back -- beauty of a bucket.
The play was what Doug Collins used to call for Jordan all the time back in the 1980s. To paraphrase: Give Frank the ball and everyone else get the hell out of the way.
"It felt good when it left my hand, but I was a little bit off balance," said Mason, who may have been off balance, but was on point.
Off balance, but on point.
"He could've made the same play," Mason said of Devonte' Graham, his teammate seated to his left. The two of them comprise the steadiest, toughest backcourt in America.
And that reaction though. Mason's got swag for months.
"He has a strong a face as there is at that guard spot," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He's stoic in how he looks. I told him in that line, I'm accustomed to talking to players in lines now .... I said, 'Big-time shot by a big-time player,' but he gives the face of a great leader all the time."
The Garden was pulsating in the final moments, then detonated on Mason's shot -- which came after a crazy 3-pointer by Duke freshman Frank Jackson the possession before. Kansas and Duke fans showed out proudly -- competing with the always-reliable traveling band of Kentucky faithful. It was a terrific scene on a day and night college basketball had mostly to itself.
"Crowd [was] unbelievable," Mike Krzyzewski said. "Garden. One big shot, another big shot, big shot, and then a huge shot to win."
Just days removed from an incredible UFC bash, MSG re-familiarized itself with its most natural inhabitant: dramatic basketball. The Champions Classic usually delivers at least one really good game. In this one, a top-three game in the six-year history of the event.
How did we get there? Kansas took charge early in the second half, thanks to freshman Josh Jackson, one of about a dozen freshmen who will make this college basketball season gripping and enthusiastic, even for many NBA diehards who drive by to check out newcomers and lotto picks on their way to the pros. Jackson had 15 points and sparked Kansas' quick comeback. He fouled out on an iffy call with 5:08 left, Kansas leading 65-55.
Duke still showed why it's an obvious national-title frontrunner. The Blue Devils lose by two against one of the country's best teams despite missing Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, who at full strength probably qualify as two of sport's five most-talented players. A third freshman, Marques Bolden, is a lottery pick in the eyes of some NBA personnel.
No Giles, no Tatum, no Bolden. Grayson Allen struggling, and probably hurting throughout after his fall late in the first half. Sixteen turnovers for Coach K's guys.
"We didn't lose because we were shorthanded tonight," Krzyzewski said. "We lost because Kansas played better than we did."
He's right, but it's still scary how good Duke can be at full strength.
Kansas wasn't perfect, either. Neither team to played to its potential but the game overcame that, just as it rose above 48 foul calls, many coming at a staggering pace.
"Shot it like crap," Bill Self said, his eyes looking predictably pretty tired. "If you're going to travel 12,000 miles you might as well win at least one game."
Kansas flew to Hawaii, then came right to New York. They had just enough left. And the Jayhawks provide the better outcome for the sport. Get Duke losing on a national stage, get No. 1 out of its slot in the first week. Duke will be stronger soon enough.
For Kansas, the win means more than you might think. The Jayhawks lost in overtime Friday against a beautifully coached Indiana team. KU's last remaining notable nonconference game comes in January at Kentucky. Fair to chalk that up as a loss. Going 1-2 against three teams likely to vie for No. 1 seeds looks a lot better than 0-3. It's nearly automatic that Kansas will win the Big 12, so you pair that with a win over Duke, and this could, and should, have 1-seed implications come March. November games have meant more to the selection committee in recent years than many drive-by commentators allow.
"To see how they got out and played out an adverse situation," said Self, "I do think it kind of gives our guys at least some confidence moving forward."
This one was a great night for college hoops, and its outcome will have reverberations. Kentucky looked really freaking entertaining a couple hours earlier, too. People turned off their TV sets satisfied. They left the Garden fulfilled. Many freshmen showed well, while a recognizable senior delivered the killer closer. The sport will have plenty of vets and a bevy of newbies rising the tide this season.
I felt this notion only moments after the game ended. As reporters started to gather their laptops and bags on press row, getting ready to head back to the press area after the game, a Duke fan couldn't help but share his enthusiasm for the night. Even in a loss, he was revved.
"Whatever you guys write, it was fun as hell," he said.
It was fun as hell. And I'm ready for a lot more. This season is going to be specatular.