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Mason, Cressler learning importance of defense

| Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, 1:06 a.m.
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Micah Mason, a Highlands graduate, decided to leave Drake after one season.
Cornell guard Nolan Cressler

Drake's Micah Mason and Cornell's Nolan Cressler were two of the most feared scorers ever to play basketball in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

They put points on the board in just about every way possible — and in bunches — be it by 3-pointers, up-and-under layups, pull-up jumpers or dunks.

But a harsh reality set in when the freshman guards began their college careers at the Division I level. The message was loud and clear from Day One.

If they want to see the court, they have to play defense.

“My defense has improved,” said Mason, the former Highlands star who is the WPIAL's all-time 3-point leader and 12th-leading scorer with 2,272 points. “I wasn't comfortable with that at first. In high school, you might take a play off here or there. Not at this level. I might hit a 3 here or there, but (mainly) I am in there to play defense.”

Not that Mason and former Plum standout Cressler didn't defend well in high school. There were games when their steals or blocks did the talking and helped seal victories.

But the two former all-state selections who dodged double- and triple-teams and shook off face-guarding defenders to get to the hoop will now be asked to turn the tables on opposing guards.

And their intensity on the defensive end could be what leads to offensive opportunities.

“Right now, I'm confident I'll be in the rotation,” said Cressler, Plum's all-time leading scorer with 1,565 points. “I think I am one of the top nine or 10 guys. I am just trying to work myself into a role.

“Everybody on this level is good. Everyone is bigger and stronger. We practice a lot of live situations and scrimmage each other. Every practice is intense.”

Drake opens its season at 7:05 p.m. Saturday against visiting Southwest Baptist.

Cornell tips off at Western Michigan at noon Nov. 10.

Mason (6-foot-2, 174 pounds) and Cressler (6-4, 200), the top two scorers in the WPIAL last season, are adjusting to college life and regimented schedules. But they also will have to adjust to a move from point guard to shooting guard — a move they reversed at the prep level.

Drake and Cornell appear to be similar, both in styles and use of multiple bench players.

“I feel like I can make an impact,” Mason said. “We have a bunch of guards. We play fast, and there's a lot of subbing.”

Drake coach Mark Phelps knows Mason can shoot. He came to a couple of Mason's closed-door workouts at Highlands last year. But he's seeing Mason's game get smooth around the edges.

“He's shown us that he's probably a little quicker than we anticipated and has the chance to be a better defender than we thought,” Phelps said. “Not that he's arrived as a defender, but he certainly has the tools and desire to be a good defender and he knows that's how he's going to get on the floor.”

Like Mason, Cressler also is pushing for early playing time.

“Nolan's been terrific since he's been here,” Cornell coach Bill Courtney said. “He's a kid who can put the ball in the basket, and that's a valued commodity at any level. His basketball intelligence is off the charts. He is a terrific passer.

“He had to get better defensively, and he's working hard there.”

Mason has been dealing with health issues for several years, the glaring one being postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS) syndrome, which has caused an irregular heartbeat, blood-flow issues and stomach problems among other ailments.

It was determined that gluten may have played a role in Mason's encounter with POTS, so he's cut it out of his diet.

A personal chef will prepare his meals, which won't include grains or carbohydrates.

“My mom came out for two weeks and cooked all my meals,” said Mason, who moved off campus to acquire his own kitchen because he could not adjust to cafeteria or dining hall food. “We found a lady who organizes food and can cook gluten-free. It was like a miracle.”

Cressler said, like defending, keeping up in an Ivy League classroom also has its challenges.

“Academically, it's a whole other level,” Cressler said. “You can't slump at all. You have to stay on top of things. In high school, you might slack off a little and still get good grades.”

Before Mason shows fans what he can do on game nights, he had to first show them that he could ... dance?

During a preseason Midnight Madness-type event, players were introduced under the glare of a spotlight and had to show their dance moves.

“That was fun and crazy,” Mason said. “Our fans came out and watched us scrimmage. I did OK with the dance, I think. I had a little something for them.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-224-2696 or bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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