Nate Mason could not sleep the night before the Gophers’ first NCAA tournament game in four years, so he did some extra scouting.
He watched video of Middle Tennessee’s point guard, of himself and even some top NBA guards to study their moves.
Outside of Mason’s hotel window, Gophers basketball fans walked the chilly streets of downtown Milwaukee decked in maroon and gold hoping for a big win the next day.
Mason, the confident All-Big Ten point guard that he is, imagined those fans cheering his team on at the Milwaukee Bucks’ Bradley Center as he led the Gophers to victory — the beginning of one of those magical March Madness runs he watched other teams have on TV growing up.
“I didn’t sleep,” Mason said. “I was just excited, anticipating everything. But I approached it like you’re the big dog, you’re the alpha and nobody can mess with you. There’s no reason to be scared.”
To understand Mason’s mentality is to understand how important he is to the Gophers’ success. Not only has he been their top scorer the last two seasons, but he’s been their swagger.
Mason felt invincible the night before his first NCAA tourney game. But a hip injury against Middle Tennessee derailed his game, humbled him and led to a sour ending to the season in an upset 81-72 loss to a No. 12 seed.
Eight months later, Mason has gone from leaning on crutches to the best shape of his life. He is vowing to get the No. 15 Gophers back to the Big Dance, and more, in his senior year.
“You can tell he wants to take that next step, whatever it is,” said coach Richard Pitino, whose team opens Friday against South Carolina Upstate at Williams Arena. “When he’s good, we’re really good.”
The Gophers were outscored 10-0 during an early Middle Tennessee run and in need of a spark. Mason beat his defender off the dribble and drove into the lane, but his jumper was blocked. It was the start of a scoreless first half.
His errant shot was the least of his problems. Mason was bumped on the shot and tweaked his left hip. It hurt like heck but he could still move, just a step or two slower. Another collision in the second half, though, took his pain to a nearly unbearable level.
“I’ve watched it plenty of times,” he said. “Probably like the 12- or 13-minute mark, I was on the left side and I kicked it out jumping up in the air. I came down and I knew instantly I messed it up bad, because I couldn’t run back.”
Mason’s father, Nate Sr., watched from the crowd as his son grabbed his hip and limped up court. It reminded him of when Mason played through pain with a similar injury in high school.
“He was playing on the Nike EYBL circuit and went almost the whole season with a hip injury,” Mason Sr. said. “We made him sit down. He kept on playing and kept on limping. But he just loved playing and competing.”
Mason gutted out 38 minutes vs. Middle Tennessee, but it ended up being his worst game of the season, maybe his career, with five points on 2-for-10 shooting and four turnovers.
“I’m not regretting anything,” he said of playing hurt. “It was definitely a bitter taste — and just motivation, especially for me to get back there.”
Mason didn’t know how bad the injury was until after the Gophers returned home. He left his phone on the team bus when it dropped them off at the Bierman Athletic Complex. Each step was excruciating, so he begged teammate Bakary Konate to run after the bus to grab his phone.
“I was on crutches the next day,” Mason said. “I couldn’t walk.”
The diagnosis was a hip impingement, strained hip flexor and strained quadriceps. Doctors recommended hip surgery, but Mason decided against that approach. He listened to former Gophers guard Lawrence McKenzie, who had the same surgery and recommended waiting and reevaluating after this season.
Mason was immobile for over two months. He gained weight and wasn’t in good shape in May when he was cleared for team workouts.
That’s when he changed his diet. Mason lost 15 pounds eating salads and chicken and avoiding fried foods. He hit the treadmill every day to improve stamina.
“It was tough because I picked up so much weight,” he said. “It was like I was stuck and not being able to do anything about it. When I got back into the flow of things, it came quicker and quicker. I stayed in the gym.”
By June, Mason was playing pickup games back home near Atlanta and training at IMG Academy in Florida. Later, he played in the Twin Cities Pro-Am league.
Early August was a turning point. Mason played well at the Chris Paul Elite Point Guard Camp in North Carolina, where Paul, the Houston Rockets All-Star point guard, gave Mason hip exercises and introduced him to yoga.
“That’s when I saw the injury wasn’t really affecting him, and he could move efficiently without discomfort,” Mason’s personal trainer and former Georgia player Dennis Williams said. “His movement, speed and quickness became much better. And we still hadn’t seen the best of him yet.”
Some upperclassmen would feel threatened by a high-profile freshman point guard such as Isaiah Washington coming into the program. Mason, however, has embraced Washington, calling him his little brother.
Washington now can’t wait to play with Mason in the same backcourt.
“Being around Nate Mason I learned what working hard really is,” Washington said. “I thought I was working hard, but just seeing him and how hard he goes just pushed me to another level.”
When the Bob Cousy Award watch list was released in October, Mason was among the top 20 candidates vying to be the nation’s top point guard. He saw his name again Thursday, when the Naismith Trophy (basketball’s Heisman Trophy) candidate list of 50 top players was released.
Gophers fans still get giddy over the 31-point, 11-assist game Mason had in a victory at eventual Big Ten champion Purdue last season. No U player had ever had a 30-and-10 game.
With Mason leading the way, team expectations are the highest they have been in decades. Some preseason predictions have the Gophers as the top challenger to Michigan State for the conference crown.
“We proved last year that anything can happen,” Mason said. “Big Ten championship. That’s the goal.”
The Decatur, Ga., native has grown from a quiet kid, the high school gym rat who loved taking big shots, to a vocal, emotional team leader. He was voted team captain again this season. With his voice and his play, Mason powers Minnesota.
“He’s a really good leader by example,” forward Jordan Murphy said. “He’s probably the best leader I’ve been around.”
In April, Mason was just starting recovery when he asked the NBA Underclassmen Advisory Committee for advice on his draft status. Their answer was simply not to declare early. He wasn’t on their list.
That gave him even more motivation to return stronger and erase the nightmare of his disastrous NCAA tournament game.
“I know I played horrific,” Mason said. “It was always in the back of my mind when I was working out over the summer. It definitely motivates me. I want to get back.”