When preparing for an opponent, the Gophers men’s basketball team often splits into two groups in practice. One group, coached by whichever assistant handled the scouting report, will mimic the upcoming challenger’s offensive attack. The other has simple instructions: get a stop.
Sometimes, Richard Pitino will have that defensive squad huddle up on its own, and the coach will just sit back and listen.
Most of the time, it’s sophomore guard Nate Mason’s voice that he hears, going over strategies and talking assignments. Pitino hopes that trend will only grow.
“He needs to be that guy for us,” Pitino said. “My goal is, I kind of want him to run the show on the court.”
Mason, the Gophers’ leading scorer with 13.7 points a game, is getting there. After scoring 19 points or more in four of the past six games and averaging six assists in that span, he is playing the best basketball of his young career. More and more, Mason is the one to chirp up in huddles, yell at teammates on the court and ensure that everyone knows the instructions in practice.
But ask Mason if he’s starting to feel like it’s “his” team, and he hesitates.
“I’m not shy of being the guy,” he said. “But I really haven’t earned that yet. … We haven’t won any games that I can say I helped win. So until I can say that, I feel like it’s not my team yet.”
Mason has a point.
The Gophers (6-18, 0-12 Big Ten) head Sunday to Iowa in the midst of a historically bad start to conference play. They still are seeking their first conference victory and have back-to-back matchups against the Big Ten’s two best teams — No. 4 Iowa and No. 2 Maryland — on the horizon.
At the moment, the Gophers are no one’s team.
They have lost seven league games by eight points or fewer, with big opportunities often crashing into shortcomings in the final minutes. Many of those responsibilities have fallen on Mason’s shoulders. But missed shots, not hero moments, have piled up.
Even so, Pitino and the Gophers still are committed to giving him the nod.
“He’s got to break through because he’s definitely had the chances,” Pitino said. “He hasn’t hit them, and it’s not that it’s his fault that we’re losing the games. But we’re going to continue to put him in that position.
“We want him to take the last shot. We want the ball in his hands. And we want him to be the leader on the court and off the court.”
Pitino has said similar things to Mason since he arrived on campus before last season and showed he could be a strong guard and hard worker. Lately, those conversations have intensified.
Mason, the coach said, has proved to be adept at finding the proper tone with each of his teammates, whether it’s getting on them in practice or encouraging them in a game.
“He does it the right way,” Pitino said. A lot of what young guys in college struggle with is how to do it. As a coach, that’s like our whole profession — figuring out how to talk to guys a certain way. That takes time … but I think Nate has got good awareness and good savviness and good intelligence to know when to talk to guys, how to talk to them the right way.”
But Mason also has seemed more affected than anyone by the losses, often sitting silently in the locker room after a defeat, cap pulled over eyes, answering questions in one or two-word responses, Cam Newton-style.
“It’s been really tough,” Mason said Saturday. “We haven’t won any games.”
But in the heart of the struggle, Pitino wants him to step it up even more. That means staying confident and energetic about a corps that could very well be “his” next year. The coach pulled him aside after the Feb. 4 loss at Northwestern and said as much.
When Pitino is quiet, he wants to hear Mason fill the void.
“It was a good conversation,” Mason said. “It’s a big role to accept, but I feel like I’m ready for it and I’ve been ready for it.
“I feel like I can fulfill it.”