Antoine Mason frowned at the term “one-man show” the way a child reacts when a fork is hovering around his mouth as he’s asked to eat his vegetables.
“We have guys on this team who can play, guys who I trust,” the Niagara University junior said. “It’s not like that.”
We can always spin it – “centerpiece” sounds a bit more regal – and while he may not realize it, the Purple Eagles will grow into a big, strong team the more Mason is shoved down opponents’ throats.
After last season’s mass exodus with the departure of longtime coach Joe Mihalich and the hiring of Chris Casey, Mason became the last man standing. While Niagara is no longer considered among the league’s elite, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Mason, who led the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in scoring in 2012-13, is a nice building block.
“If you’re a competitive person, you always want to do well but then you always want to try and surpass that and you don’t live on what you’ve done, you live on what you can do,” Casey said. “Mase has definitely brought that mentality.”
Mason is quiet – as in Pentagon briefing quiet – and if he makes any noise out on the court it’s the sound of the ball swishing through the net. A career 16.7 point-per-game scorer, Mason averaged 18.7 points as a sophomore last season while earning first-team All-MAAC honors. He’s already scored 1,088 points in two seasons.
There’s very little flair to Mason’s game, other than the slight hitch on the release of his jumper. For the most part he’s steady, rising when his team needs points. In a pivotal MAAC matchup against Iona last January, he played 44 of 50 minutes in a double-overtime victory against the Gaels and scored 30 points. He attempted 28 field goals and added five rebounds.
In a nonleague win over Vermont, Mason had to defer more and took only 12 shots. He finished with 25 points and four assists and handled the ball flawlessly in crunch time. When the Catamounts fouled him to stop the clock, he drained 9 of 10 free throws.
“His accomplishments up to this point speak for themselves,” Casey said. “But, in a credit to him, he takes all those awards and isn’t carrying them around campus. He left them home in New Rochelle. He’s not worried about last year, he’s worried about this year, because we all know you’re only as good as your last game.”
When Mihalich left for Hofstra, there was instant confusion, with text messages and phone calls fired back and forth about what to do next and who was going where.
“I just prayed, took my time and let everything work out itself,” Mason said. “I wasn’t going to make a quick decision, I was just going to sit and let everything work out. Everybody was saying, ‘Oh, what are you going to do, Antoine?’ I’m just going to wait until they get a coach, wait until everything works out and make my decision from there. Everyone was just talking with no action.”
That was until Casey was hired and Juan’ya Green, a captivating Big East-caliber talent, and Ameen Tanksley joined Mihalich at Hofstra, while T.J. Cline transferred to Richmond.
“I can see why they went with Coach Mihalich, he’s a good coach, and I wish them well,” Mason said. “They came here for him.”
Casey’s hiring was a relief to Mason, who knew the coach from his days as an assistant at St. John’s. Mason’s brother, Anthony Jr., played for the Red Storm.
“The main source I went to was my brother to see how he was,” Mason said. “He told me he was a loyal guy, he’s smart and he knows what he’s doing. I trust my brother and I trust Coach Casey.”
Then Mason began working on his game by training and watching film. He watched how his father, former New York Knick Anthony Mason, used his big body to create space on the interior, while incorporating the moves of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose into his game.
“I was picking and choosing the moves that they do, the decisions that they make at certain times,” Mason said. “I can score in different ways without having the ball in my hands. I learned certain cuts and different ways to get easier points.”
Another aspect that makes Mason frown: lowered expectations. The defending MAAC regular season champions suffered huge losses that can’t be ignored, but Mason believes he and his supporting cast will surprise.
“We weren’t ranked high last year and we finished first,” Mason said. “It’s motivation. We lost a couple of people but we have new people and I still think we have enough to finish No. 1.”