In the span of two years, the Gophers basketball team has gone from the youngest to one of the oldest squads in the Big Ten Conference.
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino will look to point guard Nate Mason and center Reggie Lynch for senior leadership this season.
Mason and Lynch are among the top college players in the country at their position. Mason, a first-team All-Big Ten player last season, was ranked as the 10th best point guard in the nation by Lindy's Sports magazine. The 6-foot-10 Lynch, the 2017 Big Ten defensive player of the year, is the 14th best center.
On Wednesday at the Minnesota State Fair, the U's tough senior inside-outside tandem talked to the Star Tribune about their summer and excitement to play with some talented newcomers this season.
Q: What did you get out of competing at Chris Paul’s elite point guard camp earlier this month?
NM: It was good to be able to play in front of NBA scouts and play against pros like Chris Paul, one of the veterans of the league. I also played against Donovan Mitchell, Malik Monk and Elfrid Payton. I learned a lot from NBA guys and how physical it is at the next level. It was definitely a learning experience.
Q: How long did it take to get back to playing form after you injured your hip in the NCAA tournament loss?
NM: I’m still not exactly where I want to be. I got hurt. I was sidelined for 2 ½ months. I gained a little weight. This summer was about getting back in shape. I went back home. I’m probably in the best shape of my life right now. So I’m looking forward to this year and the season.
I was cleared a month before we got to go home. So I got to practice a little bit and do individuals. I wasn’t able to do as much with (freshmen). So this (fall) will be a learning experience. The (newcomers) are definitely going to help us out. They’re very talented.
Q: What are your impressions of freshman guard Isaiah Washington?
NM: He’s very talented he’s going to really help us out. He’s got a lot of different moves that you have to be able to cover. He’s definitely going to help me out and keep on top of my game. I’m looking forward to playing with him. It’s going to be a fun experience. It’s definitely going to be exciting to watch both of us on the same team in the Barn.
Q: Has Pitino talked to you about playing with Washington in the backcourt together at times?
NM: Yeah for sure. Like I said I got my weight down. Whatever coach is for I’m down with. I trust his judgement and vision. He’s going to put us in the best position to win.
Q: You’re used to being overlooked during your career. What does it feel like to get a lot of respect going into the season?
NM: They’re definitely rankings us. There are a lot of expectations. We’ve got to be able to handle it. It’s going to be different for us. Coach has been doing a great job of teaching us how to handle it. So I think we’ll be ready for it.
Q: How excited are you to play with junior forward Davonte Fitzgerald since you both arrived together as transfers a couple seasons ago (Fitzgerald missed last year with a torn ACL)?
RL: I’ve been excited about Davonte ever since we both got here. When he hurt his knee last year it was heart breaking because I wanted to play two years with him. Now I’ve got one year with him. I think he’s going to bring a lot of explosiveness, shooting ability and versatility on the court. I’m just excited to have another good piece with us.
Q: What is it like trying to develop a different mindset when the team felt like the underdog last year?
RL: It’s definitely a different dynamic for us, because we were really low and we had to build ourselves up throughout last year. We need to make sure we don’t get too high on ourselves and be too confident. We need to be confident enough to play together but not think that it’s going to be easy. The accomplishments that we made last year are (in the past). We can expand upon them and build on it with the new guys coming in. We can probably be the No. 1 shot blocking team (in the country) like we were last year. I’m excited for that. We can probably be a really good defensive team.
Q: Where do you expect to see the most improvement in your game from last season?
RL: I’ve always told coach that I want to be able to shoot more outside. He said I can, but I have got to make them. So I definitely took advantage of this (summer) to work on my ball handling and shooting. So I hope to translate it to the season. I’ve tried to enhance my post moves a little more this offseason. I think now I need to work on defense and not fouling in practice. If I can get that down in practice, then it will translate to the games.
Q: What was it like playing in the Twin Cities Pro Am and winning the championship this summer?
RL: It was good to go against Tyus (Jones) and Jon Leuer, players in the NBA. I could see how I match up against them. It was cool to beat Tyus in the Pro Am. It was awesome.
Q: How important will senior leadership be for the Gophers to have success this season?
RL: It’s going to be different for us, because last year Akeem (Springs) came in and brought a leadership quality to our team. Without him other guys will have to step up this year. Nate will have to be a captain again. I’ll see what I can do to bring my leadership qualities to my position. I’m excited for the challenge.