First, there’s his appearance. He looks like a choir boy or the kid who mows your lawn. Second, there’s his name. Makai Mason sounds like a surfer or maybe a garage band guitarist. Anything but a baller.
If you overlook him, fine. He gets it. Put a basketball in his hands, however, and the doubts melt away like a spring snowfall.
“I’m an undersized white kid playing basketball,” Yale’s sophomore point guard said, “so there’s going to be assumptions that I’m not the most athletic guy. But I think I’ve put in the work and people have sacrificed to train me and spend hours with me in the gym. I definitely benefit from that.”
Mason and his Yale teammates spent the past two years erasing doubts. Their effort culminated with a second consecutive Ivy League title — the Bulldogs shared the crown last season — and the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1962. Mason led the Bulldogs to their first tournament victory with 31 points as they upset No. 5 seed Baylor, 79-75, on Thursday.
Yale plays No. 4 seed Duke on Saturday at 2:40 p.m. ET in the West Regional second round.
“You definitely get the sense from alumni, after the game at Columbia, they were on the court,” Mason said, referring to the Ivy title clincher, “and it was pretty special to see how passionate they were about the opportunity to make the tournament. Interaction like that, it really makes you realize how special this opportunity is and how rare it is.”
The Bulldogs very much played their way to the league championship. They went 13-1 in the league and won 17 of their final 18 games. Three players were named first-team All-Ivy for the first time in the history of the program: two-time conference Player of the Year Justin Sears, a 6-7 senior who averages 15.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game; bruising 6-6, 240-pound senior Brandon Sherrod, who averages 12.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game; and the 6-1, 180-pound kid from Greenfield, Conn., who very nearly was named Wolfgang. More on that in a minute.
Mason (15.8 ppg) is fifth in the conference in scoring, tied for third in assists (3.7 apg) and sixth in free-throw percentage (.781). He is no longer a surprise around the league.
“The thing about Makai is people don’t realize how athletic he is,” Yale coach James Jones told the Hartford Courant. “When we played UConn (last season), people were pushing up on him and he went by them. He doesn’t look like a guy who can tomahawk dunk, but he can.”
The Bulldogs played up in their non-conference schedule this season, and Mason demonstrated that he belonged. He had 24 points and seven assists in a 71-69 loss to nationally ranked SMU. He scored double figures in losses at Duke, Illinois and Southern Cal.
Mason’s pull-up jumper with five seconds left forced overtime in a wild 76-71 Senior Night win versus Dartmouth. He scored 22 in the season finale at Columbia, including a 3-pointer that stemmed a Lions’ rally in an eventual 71-55 win.
“He’s something else. He’s not like anybody I’ve worked with,” said Tim Lane, his prep coach his senior year at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut and a former college coach. “He works harder than anybody I’ve ever coached. He’s an absolute gym rat and an unbelievable competitor. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing pick-up in an old man’s league or in a major college game. His approach is the same and he goes as hard as he can.”
Mason earned the right to run the show at Yale on a junior-senior squad that’s long on defense, rebounding and chemistry. The Bulldogs are second nationally in rebound margin (plus-11.1) and are top-10 in offensive rebound percentage (.392), according to kenpom.com. They are top-50 nationally in scoring defense (63.1 ppg), field-goal percentage defense (.407) and 3-point field goal defense (.316).
“We trust each other,” Mason said. “We stick together, whether we’re down 10 or up by 10. I think that’s really helped keep us in most games this year.”
Yale’s feel-good story has been tempered by the recent departure of senior Jack Montague in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. His father told the New Haven (Conn.) The expelled team captain attended Thursday night’s game.
In Montague’s absence, his teammates wore warmup T-shirts with his nickname and jersey number on them before a recent TV game. They also voiced support for him, drawing criticism for insensitivity toward women and sexual assault. The players apologized, saying that was not their intention and that they want to represent Yale positively.
Mason didn’t discuss Montague’s situation directly, but he said that the team dynamic remained similar in his absence.
“I think there was a collective effort to try and step up to take leadership,” he said. “I don’t think there was any particular person that had to step in and take that role. That’s a tribute to Jack, that he was able to kind of distribute the leadership. When he was with the team, he would bring all the seniors together to shake hands with the captains before the game and try to include more people. I think it was kind of natural that the seniors have been able to step up into that role.”
Mason’s game was forged through countless hours of plyometrics, speed and conditioning drills with his father, Dan, himself a former assistant coach at the Hotchkiss School, as well as trips to camps and clinics all over the country.
Father and son chose not to participate in the AAU travel ball circuit, and instead worked on his game individually. They reasoned that expanded skills were a fair trade for limited recruiting exposure, and that he would elevate himself wherever he landed. It was an unusual path for a young man with an unusual name.
Mason’s mother, Judy Sieben, had an imaginative streak when it came to naming her children. Makai’s three older brothers are named Sandino, Yukio and Akira. Makai (muh-KIE) is a Hawaiian word meaning “toward the sea.”
“At first, me and my brothers might not have appreciated them,” Mason said. “They’re pretty different. They get mispronounced a lot, misspelled a lot. But I think we’ve really grown to appreciate them. It’s kind of nice to be unique sometimes.”
Makai is certainly more melodious than what might have been.
“I’m just glad she didn’t name me ‘Wolfgang,’” Mason said, pronouncing it full German, with a V for the W, and a sharp A in the second syllable. “That was her first choice, but my dad wouldn’t go for that.”
After conquering the Ivy League, Mason and his teammates set their sights on greater accomplishments. They aren’t favored, but they also aren’t intimidated, regardless of the stage and opponent.
“To be the underdog and be doubted, I can relate to that,” Mason said. “Just growing up as an undersized kid and having to prove myself at all levels. Hopefully, we can win a couple more games here and surprise some more people and get a little more national recognition.”