Last season, the University of Minnesota basketball team trotted out four seniors for its annual media guide; the faces and the leaders of the program for 2014-15.
But with each veteran – Andre Hollins, DeAndre Mathieu, Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker – each going through varying degrees of struggles throughout the year, it was often freshman Nate Mason who actually took the spotlight on the court.
The guard’s poise and vocal leadership stood out. His penchant for clutch plays did too. In five conference games he scored as many points or more than any of the seniors – two of those were against Wisconsin, one against Iowa. At season’s end, it was clear that Mason had been critical to the six Big Ten wins the down-and-out Gophers were able to manage. Minnesota fans on social media wondered aloud, where would the team have been without him?
The same sentiment could be applied to the approaching season in a more dramatic way. With all four seniors gone – including leading scorers Hollins and Walker – the pressure on Mason is great and provokes several big questions.
Can Mason build on an impressive freshman year?
Can he do so without the support of veteran complement?
Can he do so enough to drive Minnesota to a decent or even a good season?
Unlike last year, Mason will no longer sneak up on opponents. The 6-1 Georgia native wasn’t named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team at the end of the year (it looked like he would be for a while), but he ultimately replaced Mathieu in the starting lineup and put together very nice first-year numbers – hitting 40.9 percent of his shots from the field, 38.9 percent of his three-pointers and averaging 9.8 points, 1.8 steals, 2.8 assists and 2.8 rebounds with a 2.49-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He displayed a good touch at the basket and a knack for getting others involved; perhaps his most valuable quality was his energy, focus and precision on defense –rare for a first-year player.
But Mason was also largely inconsistent throughout the season -- he scored 12 or more points on 11 different occasions, but also scored seven points or fewer on ten different occasions, including five games with three points or fewer – often getting visibly frustrated when things didn’t go his way. And he struggled mightily from the free throw line, managing just 61.4 percent efficiency on the year.
This year, the Gophers are extremely raw from top to bottom, and feature a young backcourt with freshmen Kevin Dorsey, Dupree McBrayer and Ahmad Gilbert joining the mix. Minnesota might not have enough scorers to weather inconsistency from its offensive leader, so the impetus will be up on Mason to be as steady as ever, in his play and in his attitude. That doesn’t always happen after a breakout freshman season leads to an increase in hype and defensive focus, and without as many “names” on this year’s roster, it could be even tougher. Mason also missed eight weeks this spring after having surgery on his thumb. Coach Richard Pitino says that the lost time wasn’t critical because it was so early and says he doesn’t believe it impacted Mason’s development over the summer.
That hope, and Mason’s mental and physical toughness will all be tested soon enough. If the sophomore can take the next step, he could be the on-court leader this team so desperately will need. If not, Gophers fans might wonder aloud where the team will end up.