By Grant Abston
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
After starting the season 17-0 for the third time in school history and first since the 1932-33 season, the Texas Longhorns earned their first No. 1 ranking in school history.
For a team featuring a trio of talented freshmen, the early-season success could have caused concern for some coaches. But for Rick Barnes, a trio of experienced seniors - Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Justin Mason - makes sure this Texas team remains focused on the task at hand despite the national recognition.
James and Pittman have continually grabbed headlines throughout the season. For Barnes however, it’s the third senior who remains a huge key to the team’s success.
“Justin Mason has been a great program guy because he cares about his teammates. He cares about the program, and he’s always worked,” Barnes said. “I don’t think anyone can understand how important he is based on looking at the stat sheet. But if you know everything that goes into this program on a daily basis, you appreciate Justin so much.”
Mason grabbed a starting spot in the UT rotation just four games into his freshman season. Playing alongside Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin, both current NBA players, Mason ranked fourth on the team in scoring (7.6 points per game) and averaged 29 minutes per contest as Texas reached the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.
In his sophomore season, Mason increased his playing time to 32.8 minutes per game while scoring 7.1 points per contest. Texas advanced to the “Elite Eight” in the NCAA Tournament and won a school-record 31 games during the season. Mason was named to the Big 12 All-Defensive Team, and for the second consecutive year, he also was named the team’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
As a junior, Mason averaged 6.1 points per game in 30 minutes per contest. He again earned a spot on the Big 12 All-Defensive Team, and he helped Texas reach the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.
Entering his senior season, Mason knew he would be competing for playing time with the talented incoming freshman class. He made a commitment in the offseason to becoming a better leader, and to make sure the chemistry on this year’s team was good from the start.
“When we were younger, we didn’t have older role models on the team because they all had just graduated (Brad Buckman and Kenton Paulino) or left early for the NBA (LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson and P.J. Tucker). So I though it was important for us to try to be leaders and help the younger guys,” Mason said.
Through the first 19 games, Mason’s minutes have gone from a three-year career average of 30.6 minutes per game to 16.3 this season. However, his importance to the team’s success cannot be underestimated.
“I think when you think about character, you look at what Justin has done,” Barnes said. “He’s had to coach guys that are playing minutes that he’s played in the past. But he’s willing to do that. He’s been willing to help Avery Bradley, Jordan Hamilton and J’Covan Brown. Justin is willing to teach them, coach them and be a great teammate to them. I think that speaks volumes about his character.”
For Mason, he not only recognizes the depth and talent of this year’s team, he welcomes the competition and has fun competing in practices.
“The younger guys always have energy, so it’s always going to be a challenge to go out there and compete against those guys. I look forward to that every day,” Mason said.
After suffering their first two losses of the season to Kansas State and Connecticut, the Horns return home for a two-game stretch against conference opponents Texas Tech and Baylor. For Mason, the challenges are nothing new, and he knows he must keep the team focused on playing one game at a time.
“I see my role this year as being a leader. I do what my teammates need me to do,” Mason said. “Obviously this year our team is more talented and deep than it has been in the last couple of years. I need to keep everybody on the same page and try to lead them in the same direction.”
If Mason continues to lead like he has to this point, that direction could lead Texas to its first national championship come April.