Nate Mason swears he doesn’t pay attention to outside opinions about him as a basketball player, but one particular internet poll somehow came to his attention and bothered him.
The exact source remains a little hazy, but apparently some outlet ranked the top 25 players in the Big Ten before the season. Mason’s name wasn’t included.
His omission wasn’t outlandish at the time. Mason had a solid but unspectacular first two seasons in a Gophers uniform. And he didn’t exactly end his sophomore season on a high note.
Mason and two teammates missed the final four games while serving a suspension as punishment for a sex-video scandal that embarrassed the program.
In one breath, Mason says he found that preseason poll of top Big Ten players “funny” and that “I didn’t use all that for motivation.”
And yet …
“It was like, ‘OK, let’s go show them,’ ” he admitted. “I try not to pay attention to it. But certain things you just remember.”
Mason was recognized in a different poll last week. He became the first Gophers player named first-team All-Big Ten since Vincent Grier in 2005.
Mason emerged as the catalyst behind a historic turnaround that propelled the Gophers back to the NCAA tournament. He leads the team in scoring and several other offensive categories while providing bulldog tenacity as captain.
Mason plays with competitive rage. He looks angry on the court. At only 6-2, he drives hard to the basket, unafraid to challenge much taller post players.
He is the best player on a balanced team. Maybe their toughest player, too. That’s not a chip on his shoulder. More like a boulder.
“I take everything as a personal challenge,” he said. “I just want to get everyone back. Payback, revenge is really the motto.”
Revenge for what?
“The first two years I was here, we really didn’t have good years,” Mason said. “Going into this season, I knew we had a chance to be really good.”
Student of the game
His toughness was evident from an early age. Mason and a group of friends in Atlanta started playing AAU ball together at age 6. They were all undersized. Fast and hard-nosed, but undersized. They took on all-comers.
“We had probably the smallest team in the country,” Mason said. “That’s where I got the mind-set to just kill everything.”
Mason was short and chubby as a youngster. He stood in the corner and shot three-pointers. He was money from that spot.
“His jump shot was the best jump shot in the state of Georgia,” said his father, Nate Sr. “He put on a show.”
Nate Sr. coached his son’s AAU team. They are spitting images, those two. They once won a look-alike contest on Father’s Day. First prize was a VIP trip to a big-top circus that included backstage passes to see the animals.
Nate Sr. was hard on his son in basketball. He pushed him in drills and stoked his competitive fire, creating a narrow focus.
“He was either going to quit or he was going to play,” Nate Sr. said. “We never had an in-between.”
Mason flourished as he grew and learned the game. He won three state championships in high school and played on Chris Paul’s Nike-sponsored AAU team. The turning point in his career came during his junior year when he switched schools and moved from shooting guard to point guard.
“That’s when his game just took off,” Nate Sr. said.
Mason studied Paul’s style of play closely and tried to emulate him, particularly the way the Clippers star controls every facet of a game. They became friendly through AAU and still communicate occasionally through texts.
“I like how he carries himself,” Mason said. “I’ve always looked up to him.”
He especially admires the way Paul attacks the defense on pick-and-rolls. Mason loves ball screens and the freedom to drive to the basket or pull up for a midrange jumper depending on how he’s being guarded.
“Coming off the ball screen, if I see open space, I’m going to shoot it,” he said. “That’s my sweet spot. If the big guy plays too far back and that guard is a little bit late, it’s going up. And I think it’s going to go in every time.”
Mason has played basketball for as long as he can remember. Having that taken away at the end of last season crushed him.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino suspended Mason, Dupree McBrayer and Kevin Dorsey after an lewd video was posted on a social media account belonging to Dorsey, who transferred after the season. The three didn’t commit a crime, just showed poor judgment.
Mason hated being in public after the incident because he was embarrassed. He called home constantly to apologize. His parents noticed he lost weight.
“I told him that if this is the biggest mistake of your life, you’re going to have a great life,” Nate Sr. said. “A lot of us make mistakes. Some of us can’t rebound from it. This is one you can rebound from. You see it this year in his play and his attitude. Even when he talks, it’s all different now.”
Basketball became his escape. Mason said he went out socially only one night last summer. He worked out like never before.
“I lived in the gym,” he said. “That [incident] definitely made me grow up and matured me real quick. It was like, ‘You’ve got to really focus.’ ”
He displayed that focus all season, particularly in Big Ten games. He finished in the top five in the league in scoring, assists, steals, free-throw shooting and assists-to-turnover ratio in conference games.
His leadership has blossomed, too. Pitino appreciates his point guard’s poise and confidence but also his approach.
“Same demeanor every day,” Pitino said.
Mason credits a video that Pitino showed the entire team of Kansas point guard Frank Mason III during a hard-fought game this season. KU’s Mason kept bending over, clearly fatigued, but he made key plays in crunch time to lead his team to victory.
“Coach just showed us how resilient the good teams are when they’re tired,” Nate Mason said. “Fortunately, he showed us right before we had a tough game [vs. Iowa]. It motivated us a lot to push through.”
The Gophers won in double overtime as Mason finished with 25 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two blocks.
Two weeks earlier, Mason’s father visited for the Wisconsin game. He met a family with two young kids at Williams Arena and struck up a conversation. One of the boys asked if he was indeed Mason’s dad.
“Nate is my favorite player,” the kid said.
Nate Sr. beamed with pride.