By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — Twice a freshman, Antoine Mason has used that experience to soar over a sophomore slump of any sort.
The son of former NBA all-star Anthony Mason made his presence known on Monteagle Ridge seconds into his very first game, sinking a 3-pointer off the opening tip and high-stepping back down the court while pointing at his grinning coach, Joe Mihalich.
Mason scored 50 points in his first three games for Niagara, setting an early pace in the unwinnable race to break Calvin Murphy's all-time scoring mark (2,548 points). But a stress fracture was soon found in his foot, and Mason wound up taking a medical redshirt while the Purple Eagles bricked their way to a 9-23 record.
Last season, the 6-3 guard scored 15.1 points per game, the third-highest freshman average in Niagara history, and was named to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference all-rookie team. But he also shot 38 percent from the field and had more turnovers than assists, developing the reputation as an inefficient gunner on a 14-win team.
Of course, the Purple Eagles' all-time scoring list is littered with players who were perceived that way early in their careers, including the great Murphy. The fast-paced, free-shooting style Mihalich encourages lends itself to the type of player who believes he can score from anywhere on the floor, on every possession.
Mihalich knew Mason would need to improve his shot selection and play within the offense more for the Purple Eagles to thrive. Mason returned to campus in the summer with the same knowledge, having studied video of every game with his father.
"A lot of immature stuff," was what Mason saw. "Being a freshman, there are going to be a lot of immature shots, rushed shots, turnovers that you are not supposed to make. I watched it, analyzed it and tried to correct it and tried to correct it. I let the game come to me more, slow it down, trust my teammates."
Now, despite having more than half his playing career ahead of him, Mason is playing with the efficiency of a senior and has become the centerpiece of the Purple Eagles' offense. He has raised his scoring average to 18.8 on the same number of shots. His field goal percentage is up to 47 percent and he's shooting 82 percent from the free throw line, which he visits often.
While last season, his offensive rating was a sub-standard 93.0, according to kenpom.com. This year he is third in the MAAC among high-usage players with a 111.7 rating.
"He's become so efficient," Mihalich said. "He makes his foul shots, he makes open shots and his shot selection is better. He has an air of confidence about him. He's always believed in himself, but he's seeing better results now."
Mason's teammates were always supportive of his high-volume shooting, because they knew how much time he spent working on his offensive game, and how effective he could be in practice.
"He's aways in the gym shooting," junior guard Marvin Jordan said. "When we got here the summer before freshman year, he was was one of the first guys in the gym. A few weeks ago I saw him in the gym working only on bank shots, then in our next game he went out and made three of those shots."
Like Charron Fisher and Tyrone Lewis before him, Mason's fearlessness is what makes him great, but also what led to poor performances last year, Mihalich said.
"He's as tough a guy as you're ever going to come up against and as competitive of a guy. When the lights are bright, and the game is on the line, he wants the ball," Mihalich said. "He believed every shot was a good shot, because he believed he could make every shot. What we told him is that if you take good shots, you'll make them, and if you take bad shots, they're hard to make."
Mason has also found greater comfort in his third year in Mihalich's offense, and second year playing with point guard Juan'ya Green, another gifted scorer.
"Last year, I caught a hamstring injury in the preseason so I didn't get to build that chemistry," Mason said. "This year I got to build that chemistry and its another year of knowing each other, knowing what spots we like, what spots we don't like and building that chemistry."GAME TODAY Niagara (6-7, 2-1 MAAC) vs. Fairfield (10-5, 2-1) • WHEN: 3 p.m. • WHERE: Gallagher Center • RADIO: 1520 AM • NOTES: The Purple Eagles are coming off their best game of the season, a 94-72 home win over Marist in which they set season-highs in points and field goal percentage. ... Fairfield has won six in a row, including Friday's 66-45 win at Canisius. ... Through three conference games, Niagara rates out as the MAAC's most efficient offense, while Fairfield boast the top-rated defense, according to kenpom.com. ... Fairfield won both of last season's meetings.