LEXINGTON, Ky. — Usually when two unheralded recruits go up against the best point guard and second-best shooting guard in their recruiting class, the latter comes out on top.
That is, unless you count No. 2 Kansas’ win over No. 4 Kentucky.
Backcourt comparisons dominated discussion surrounding Saturday night’s Kansas game against Kentucky when Jayhawk guards senior Frank Mason III and junior Devonte’ Graham were slated to go up against Kentucky’s star freshmen guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox.
Prior to Saturday's matchup, ESPN College GameDay flashed a comparison of the two backcourts. The Kentucky crowd went wild when the screen showed Fox and Monk’s point per game average, 38.1, almost five points higher than the duo of Mason and Graham.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas even commented that Kentucky's Fox and Monk might just be the greatest Kentucky backcourt of all time.
By the end of the game, the narrative had flipped and Kentucky’s stars found themselves on the losing end of a scoring battle with Kansas’ backcourt leaders.
When coach Bill Self was asked about the experience of his guards, he said, “Frank and Devonte’…those guys played with pretty good poise down the stretch. Really good.”
The twosome's scoring reflected that. 10 of Graham’s 12 points and 13 of Mason’s 21 came during the second half after Kansas found itself down five going into halftime.
Mason’s rise from Towson-commit-turned-Jayhawk climbed even higher on Saturday night against two future NBA lottery picks. After every marquee game, Mason’s chances of having his jersey hanging in the Allen Fieldhouse rafters seems to rise.
Graham struggled in the first half, but Kentucky guard Dominique Hawkins said that Graham "was able to get to the basket and hit second chance points as well."
During the second half with Kansas up by just two, Graham ran up to freshman guard Josh Jackson in the corner, took the ball out of his hands and proceeded to hit a three-pointer at the top of the key seconds later.
With 8:30 gone in the second half, Graham had already outscored both Monk and Fox, after the two had scored 18 of Kentucky’s 32 points in the first half.
Graham’s display showed two things: he wants to take big shots with the game close, and he’s capable of hitting them. After going 0-of-3 from deep in the first half, Graham hit two of his four three-point attempts in a close second half.
“I think we just believed in each other,” Mason said about how the team overcame the poor 3-point shooting in the first half. “[We] started to drive the ball down hill and stay in attack mode”.
Kansas’ defensive game plan involved switching to and from zone, which helped force five turnovers from Monk, two from Fox and another three from sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe. That’s just one more impressive accomplishment on the growing resumes of Mason and Graham.
As for Kentucky’s defensive against Kansas’ guards, Mason and Graham were able to capitalize by not forcing anything.
“Coach tells us all the time don’t play to the mismatch or just move the ball and it will naturally come. So that’s what we tried to do,” Jackson said.
Kansas’ backcourt wasn’t perfect themselves, the two upperclassmen finished with a combined nine turnovers, but the high turnover rate was a small price to pay for a key win in Rupp Arena.
There’s still the heart of conference play, the conference tournament, March Madness and of course the NBA Draft, but for a cold Saturday in January, there was no better duo than Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham.