Nate Mason tried to encourage his Gophers teammates from the bench for the last four games last season, but part of him hurt so bad he barely could stand to watch.
The junior point guard said being suspended to finish the season was one of the most difficult experiences of his basketball career.
Mason learned a valuable lesson after being disciplined along with guards Dupree McBrayer and Kevin Dorsey for their involvement in a sexually explicit video posted on Dorsey’s social media account in late February.
“We felt like we let the team down,” Mason said before Tuesday’s practice. “We said to ourselves and came to a conclusion that it will never happen again. We’ll never let our team down. We’re doing everything possible to be there for our team and push our team.”
As the floor general and leading scorer (13.8 points per game) returning, Mason must set the tone to help the Gophers prove last season’s 8-23 record is far from what they’re capable of accomplishing.
But the leadership burden isn’t solely on his shoulders entering the 2016-17 season.
Senior graduate transfer Akeem Springs and sophomore Jordan Murphy are sharing that responsibility with Mason since practice officially started Sept. 30.
“Akeem Springs has come in and provided great leadership,” coach Richard Pitino said. “Akeem has changed the tone in practice. You can see a little bit. He’s confident. He’s a veteran. With him, Nate and Murph, I think those guys can provide great leadership.”
Springs, a 6-4 guard from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, didn’t join the team until August after he took summer school to graduate. But it didn’t take long for him to establish himself as a player who isn’t afraid to give out some constructive criticism.
“He’s gotten on guys, and it’s perked everybody up,” Pitino said. “As I’m about to say something, he says it. I think that’s when you know you have good leadership.”
Murphy, a bouncy 6-6 forward, earned Big Ten all-freshman team honors after averaging 11.6 points and a team-best 8.0 rebounds last season. But he was so frustrated with how the off-court issues affected the team that he had a meeting with Pitino after the season.
There was speculation that Murphy wanted to transfer, but he said the meeting was more about figuring out his role. He spent a lot of time this summer working on his game on campus and getting to know his teammates better.
“Every player goes through re-evaluating where they’re at; it wasn’t anything serious,” Murphy said. “I needed to get better. I needed to do more for my team. I needed to do more for me as a player.”
No player did more self reflection this offseason than Mason, who said being suspended made him focus more on “what I’m here for.”
He understands now what he needs to do to make sure the Gophers are successful. Part of that is leading not just by example off the court but being more vocal on the court.
“Coach Pitino is probably looking forward to me leading this team,” Mason said. “So I just got to step up, get out of my comfort zone a little bit, talk a little bit more here and there and just lead this team to victory.”