Richard Pitino recently noticed Isaiah Washington wasn’t practicing as hard as he normally does, but it wasn’t something he had to personally handle with his talented freshman.
Senior captain Nate Mason talked to his fellow point guard away from the team. And the next day, Washington had a completely different mind-set.
“He comes in [Saturday], and he’s got this big smile on his face,” Pitino said Saturday at Gophers basketball media day. “He said to me, ‘I had a great talk with Nate last night … about me playing hard.’ ”
Mason already has that type of tough-love relationship and mutual respect with Washington where he is always competing and demanding the most out of his younger teammate.
“I’m telling him a lot,” Mason said. “I don’t take any plays off. I go at his head like he’s not a freshman, because we’re going to need him. The way I come at him is, ‘This is how it’s going to be in the Big Ten.’ ”
The Gophers are deeper at point guard than they were last season as a 24-win NCAA tournament team because of Washington, a highly rated recruit and social media sensation from Harlem. How much New York’s top prep player can adjust to playing with Mason and at the college level will go a long way toward Minnesota having one of the best backcourts in the nation.
Mason, junior Dupree McBrayer and sophomore Amir Coffey likely will be the three starting guards entering this season. Washington and freshman Jamir Harris are expected to play prominent roles.
Washington hopes he plays a lot with Mason because of what they can do together.
“I believe nobody can stay in front of me, and he believes nobody can stay in front of him,” Washington said. “If I get in the lane and find Nate, he’s one hell of a shooter. He can score in many types of ways. And so can I. We’re just hungry to be successful. If we play together, it’s going to be a long season for [opponents].”