Richard Pitino looked at the sour faces of his Gophers men’s basketball team last season, and all he could say to his players was that they would be rewarded down the road.
When the Gophers eclipsed last season’s win total with a 9-1 start to this season, Pitino tried not to get too excited, but he was smiling because his seven returning players from an 8-23 team finally gets to experience success.
“As tough as last year was,” Pitino said, “they got great experience on the court. Bakary [Konate] now is giving us very valuable minutes. If he didn’t play through that stuff last year, he wouldn’t be ready this year. That’s the same for Dupree [McBrayer], Nate [Mason] and, obviously, [Jordan Murphy]. As difficult as the season was, it was very good for those guys.”
The Gophers, who play host to Northern Illinois on Sunday, are a different team. But some of the same faces are still here.
Mason, McBrayer, Murphy and Konate returned after starting last season.
Konate is now the backup center to Reggie Lynch, but he is figuring out how to be productive in limited minutes. Ahmad Gilbert, Gaston Diedhiou and walk-on Stephon Sharp went from contributing to out of the main rotation.
Murphy’s talent is evident, but he is struggling to show improvement from last season. Mason and McBrayer are turning into the backcourt that Pitino always envisioned.
Mason and McBrayer combined for 32 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds and eight steals in Friday’s 86-49 victory over Georgia Southern. The Eagles’ backcourt trio had only 16 points on 7-for-30 shooting.
Starting 14 games together last season gave this group of Gophers instant chemistry. Mason and McBrayer only had to adjust a little to play with freshman Amir Coffey and senior transfer Akeem Springs.
“Nate does a good job trying to get me the ball,” said McBrayer, a sophomore. “Amir does a good job trying to get me the ball when I’m hot, and I just try to keep rolling from there — staying on the attack.”
McBrayer appears to be the team’s most improved player, having seen major increases in scoring average (5.9 to 11.4), field-goal percentage (32.6 to 44.8) and three-point percentage (25.0 to 36.4).
Mason is second on the team in points (12.9) and leads it in assists (5.2) and steals (1.2). The junior captain has scored in double figures in eight of nine games this season, while shooting 45.5 percent from three-point range.
“I always tell him, ‘You’ve got to look at yourself as one of the best guards in the league,’ ” Pitino said. “He’s sharing the ball well. He’s playing great defense. His stamina is really good. He’s not getting tired. He’s making shots. He’s doing a lot of really good things.”
Mason and Murphy thought they were overlooked as two of the top Big Ten’s top players in the preseason.
“It obviously bothers me,” Mason said. “But I try to come out every day and try to prove it.”
With the arrival of Lynch and freshman big man Eric Curry, Murphy is still figuring out how to make his presence felt consistently. His numbers are slightly down in scoring (11.6 last season to 9.7), rebounding (8.0 to 7.7), field-goal percentage (46.1 to 44.2) and free-throw percentage (61.2 to 51.3).
In his past five games, Murphy is averaging only 8.0 points per game on 34 percent shooting. He didn’t make a basket from the floor against Florida State or New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Pitino talked with his sophomore captain about letting his frustration show too often. He fouled out with two points in a 74-68 victory vs. NJIT or Tuesday night.
“That body language can scream at times,” Pitino said. “So I was talking to him a little bit about that, because every game moving forward is on some type of TV. Just making sure his body language is great. But he wants to win.”