When Jamal Mashburn Sr. watched his son play for the Gophers and Richard Pitino for the first time at Williams Arena in Saturday's lopsided loss to Illinois, the father kept his eyes on the bigger picture.
Sure, the former NBA standout wants to see his son play in the NCAA tournament one day like he did at Kentucky for Pitino's father, Rick, including a trip to the Final Four in 1993.
More importantly, though, Pitino's building up of the young Mashburn during a difficult pandemic season has impressed the father. It's been a freshman year filled with opportunities for growth and lessons learned.
"I just like the culture of the Gophers program for a freshman coming in," Mashburn Sr. said. "I like what Richard has done in his development with Jay."
Entering Thursday's game against Northwestern, the Gophers (13-10, 6-10 Big Ten) are suffering from injuries to starters, but their best young player, Mashburn, is flourishing in a new role.
Since earning a starting spot after junior Gabe Kalscheur was sidelined with a broken finger last week, Mashburn is averaging 17.5 points in two games. The 6-2, 175-pound freshman's emergence has been a much-needed scoring complement to star junior point guard Marcus Carr.
"Obviously not sure what Marcus' future holds," Pitino said, looking beyond this season. "So Jay is a big part from the backcourt moving forward. Any opportunities he can get as a freshman are good. I'm excited about him."
The Gophers were fine using Mashburn as backup point guard, but he is a gifted scorer. With Kalscheur likely out for at least three more weeks, and starting center Liam Robbins battling through an ankle injury, Mashburn is providing the jolt the lineup needs. He has scored in double figures in five of his past six games.
"Just started staying in attack mode and not settling for the jump shot," Mashburn Jr. said on his recent success. "I have a great [midrange] game, which is something I take pride on."
Decades after their fathers built a lifelong bond between player and coach at Kentucky, Mashburn Jr. and Richard Pitino had to form their own bond to join together in college.
After first seeing Mashburn Jr. play in the eighth grade on Gulliver Prep's varsity team in Miami, Pitino and his Gophers staff kept him on their radar. Pitino invited the family on an official visit during Mashburn's junior year after he transferred to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire in 2018.
"One thing I stressed to Richard was that even though your dad and I have a relationship, you still have to recruit my son," Mashburn Sr. said. "He earned the right to be recruited. A lot of schools came after him."
Pitino didn't offer Mashburn a scholarship until it was clear his father could not be coaching him. Rick Pitino was dismissed as Louisville's coach during a recruiting scandal in 2017. Their family history wasn't the determining factor when the Gophers got a commitment two years later.
"I told Richard it's not going to be a family deal because I'm not coming to play," Mashburn Sr. said. "He's the one who had to live the experience."
Up for the challenge
Mashburn's freshman year with the Gophers started slowly. He scored just 10 points combined and averaged 11 minutes in his first four games.
The confident 19-year-old was a bit rattled, like many newcomers not getting to experience a normal college life during the pandemic. He talked to Pitino, wanting to earn more responsibility. The next game, he scored 10 points in 13 minutes in an overtime win vs. Boston College.
An increased role didn't come right away. Mashburn scored in double figures only once in his first 10 Big Ten games. He still took pride in coming off the bench to provide a spark and enjoyed camaraderie with his teammates on and off the court.
"What I instilled in Jay is the uncomfortable situations are what help you grow the most," Mashburn Sr. said. "He's the type of kid who is really competitive and likes the challenge. Playing in the Big Ten is the biggest stage and one of the most physical conferences. He's going to take his lumps and learn."
Being isolated from his family has been tough on Mashburn Jr., but he got to see his father and stepmother, Bailey Smith, for the first time this season when they were in town last week. They had dinner the night before the game.
"He's always a resource," Mashburn Jr. said of his dad. "He's my best friend, my mentor and my trainer all in one. He's my biggest critic and my biggest fan."
Whenever the names Mashburn or Pitino come up, people still talk about the successful run their fathers had together at Kentucky. But the Gophers' connection with another generation is starting to build momentum as well.
"This environment [with the pandemic] is very difficult for a freshman," Mashburn Sr. said. "But no matter what their record says at the end of the year, I'm proud of what he's been able to accomplish and what Richard has been able to accomplish."