Every time Antoine Mason leaves the Niagara locker room to head back out for the second half, an intimidating presence is waiting for the NCAA Division I scoring leader before he takes the court.
It's his father, Anthony Mason. Yes, that Anthony Mason of the 1990s New York Knicks who was one of the scariest dudes in basketball.
Anthony has found a nice retirement niche: Turning his son into a pro.
The story of Antoine is much like his father's, minus the part where the son grows up with his pops in the pros.
Antoine was under-recruited as a high school player and didn't receive any major offers. Anthony, an undersized power forward at 6'7", also had to go the small-school route at Tennessee State. He averaged 28.0 points per game as a senior and was drafted by the Trail Blazers in the third round of the 1988 NBA draft.
"I know what it takes to make it," Anthony said. "All you ever hear when you go to that level is how hard it is. The odds are 20,000 to one. That was my chip."
Anthony bounced around overseas and in the CBA and USBL between cups of coffee in the league before finally catching on with the Knicks in 1991.
He's reliving that history through his son.
Antoine, a fourth-year junior, averages 28.3 points per game this year—it's a goal of his to beat his dad's senior-year average—and he has aspirations to play in the NBA.
"I think the NBA is within reason," Antoine said.
"Let's keep it honest," Anthony said of Antoine's pro potential. "He's the No. 1 scorer in the country. Somebody's watching."
So far, only one NBA scout has made it to a Niagara game this season.
The reality for most small-school stars putting up big numbers on struggling teams is that they'll get their chance overseas.
Of course, the stories of small-school guys making it (Stephen Curry at Davidson, Damian Lillard at Weber State and Kenneth Faried at Morehead State) have given hope to players like Antoine.
The big difference between Antoine and the success stories is that Curry, Lillard and Faried all played on winning teams. The Purple Eagles are 4-13 under first-year coach Chris Casey.
And that has been the story for several of the recent NCAA scoring leaders. They rack up stats and empty dreams playing on mediocre teams. Curry and Jimmer Fredette have been the exceptions. Antoine fits more with the group below of recent scoring leaders from small schools. Reggie Williams from Virginia Military Institute is the only one of the four to play a minute in the NBA.
|Small-school NCAA Scoring Champs|
|2004-05||Keydren Clark||25.8||St. Peter's||15-13|
But Antoine does have the benefit of knowing a guy with some connections, and like Curry and Lillard, his numbers aren't the typical empty stats of a chucker on a bad team.
Antoine is one of the best players at driving to the hoop in college basketball, and that's a statement that would be true if he played at Kentucky or Niagara. He can drive in either direction—he's a righty who goes left more than he goes right, according to Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required). He was born a lefty, like his father, but his grandmother switched the fork from his left hand to his right hand.
"No telling what he might have been if he was left-handed," Anthony said. "We're hard to check."
The ability to go either direction and take a hit or two has made him tough to keep out of the paint, where he has an array of runners and scoop shots. He makes 50.8 percent of his twos and leads the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (8.8), per KenPom.com (subscription required).
"He's an efficient scorer," Casey said. "He's not just running down and chucking up shots. His numbers are quality numbers."
The only area of his offensive arsenal that needs improving is his outside shot. He's a 30.4 percent three-point shooter, and Anthony says he has a hitch they're working to eliminate. At 6'3", it's tough to make it to the league without a consistent jumper.
That's the bonus of playing at a place like Niagara. Casey has been willing to still give Mason the green light. After all, he's the second-best three-point shooter percentage-wise on his team.
Anthony also likes that his son gets to play multiple positions and diversify his game at Niagara. He's experienced what's it like to have a son at a major program as well. His older son, Anthony Mason Jr., played at St. John's from 2005 to 2010 and is now playing for the Sioux Falls Skyforce in the D-League.
"What I like about small colleges is you get a better chance to play your position," Anthony said. "If you go to a Kansas or a Kentucky, if you're a center, you're a center. If you're a shooting guard, you're a shooting guard. When you're at a smaller college, like myself, I played across the floor and I think that helps you at the next level than just playing one position.
"It doesn't matter what school you go to, if you can play, you can play. Any time you got into competition with anybody at a big school who had a name, then you destroyed them and people didn't see where you go as long as you can play the game."
Anthony made sure Antoine learned at a young age that he could hang with anyone.
When Antoine was in middle school and tearing it up in the suburbs of Westchester, Anthony took him to Rucker Park.
"Because if you don't play in the city, you don't play basketball," Anthony said. "He was getting his ass handed to him at first. When he stuck it out, I knew he was going to be special."
In Antoine's one opportunity against a "big school" this year, he scored 34 points in Niagara's opener against Seton Hall from the Big East.
Niagara also played Curry's alma mater, Davidson, a program that has been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments. Antoine struggled through back spasms for most of the game, but he ended up scoring 16 of his 21 points in the final eight minutes to help Niagara pull off the upset.
"I was either going to go out on the ground with a back spasm or it was going to get better," Antoine said.
"His work ethic and his tenacity and his attitude, 'I'm not going to let somebody stop me' reminds me of myself," Anthony said. "I never thought I could be stopped."
No one has stopped Antoine either. He's scored 30 or more points nine times and his season low is 18. The NCAA's second-leading scorer, Creighton's Doug McDermott, averages 3.3 less points per game.
Antoine said he talks to his dad every day, making it clear that he's playing a big role in his development. Along with the halftime pep talks, the two watch film after every game in an attempt to get rid of bad habits.
Apparently, those halftime chats are working. The Purple Eagles have been outscored by 126 points in the first half this year, and they're plus-six after halftime.
"We try to eliminate the next game," Anthony said. "If something's not going right in the first half, we try to adjust and he's great at adapting. So you don't have to go a whole game making a mistake."
At the end of the year, father and son will have a decision to make together. Antoine graduates in the spring, but he still has another year of eligibility left because of a foot injury that forced him to redshirt as a freshman.
He could book it for the pros after he wins a scoring title or spend another year working on his weaknesses at Niagara. The odds may be against him, but he has a father who knows what it takes, and who believes in his son.
"He hasn't reached his apex yet," Anthony said. "If he can fix that jumper, no telling what he can score."
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.
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