Nate Mason’s stomach is covered with tattoos. He’s got body ink — “pieces” he calls them — on his arms, legs and back as well. He has so many he’s lost count.
If the Gophers point guard and team captain had to pick a favorite tattoo, it would be the Bible quote on his left arm from Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Whenever Mason faced adversity during his University of Minnesota career, he believed he had the strength to overcome it.
Whether it was from his mistakes after being thrust into a starting role as a freshman, to the suspension his sophomore year or recovering from the hip injury that limited his impact in the NCAA tournament last season, Mason always answered with more determination.
“It’s been an up-and-down, roller coaster-type of four years,” Mason said. “But I learned a lot.”
The biggest challenge has come in his final season. Entering senior night on Wednesday against Iowa, the Gophers (14-15, 3-13 Big Ten) have lost nine in a row and 12 of the past 13 games. They have often played this season without four of their top six players.
“It was very tough to see the season go down the wrong path,” he said.
But Mason has not stopped competing and leading, despite knowing for weeks that his only chance at playing in one more NCAA tournament would come via the automatic bid from winning the Big Ten tournament.
“I just read a quote two weeks ago that I really took to heart that says, ‘Grow through what you go through,’ ” Mason said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do. Everybody goes through hard times. It’s a matter of how you get out of it.”
Statistically, Mason will finish his career as one of the all-time great Gophers guards. He needs only 41 points to pass Kevin McHale (1,704) and Sam Jacobson (1,709) to be No. 5 in career scoring. He already is No. 2 in assists, joining Arriel McDonald as the only Gophers to reach the 500-assist mark.
The 6-2, 185-pound Georgia native also has a shot at being the first Gophers guard to earn back-to-back all-Big Ten honors since Vince Grier in 2005 and 2006.
“Mason is a bona fide pro,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He’s got things that most guards don’t have. He’s got the speed. He can pull up from three or he can pull up in the lane. He can take it to the hole. He’s a very good player.”
After Tony Carr nailed a three-pointer to send the Gophers’ game at Penn State last month into overtime, Mason gathered his teammates together in a huddle to make sure they weren’t feeling sorry for themselves.
“I gathered the guys up and said, ‘We have been through this before. We’ve hit adversity before. Let’s respond now,’ ” Mason said. “We didn’t lie down.”
That was the last victory for the Gophers, who haven’t been able to overcome injuries to Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer and forward Eric Curry, and the suspension of center Reggie Lynch. Mason hasn’t stopped talking to his teammates in every game, something that did not come naturally.
Seniors who came before him such as DeAndre Mathieu, Andre Hollins and Akeem Springs tried to prepare Mason for when it would be his team. As his college career comes to an end, Mason realizes now it’s up to him to pass that knowledge on to freshman Isaiah Washington, the Gophers’ future point guard.
“It was hard for me to do, especially when I was younger,” Mason said. “So I’m trying to groom Isaiah a lot and get him out of his comfort zone being able to speak up on some things he doesn’t think he should speak up on.”
Leaving a legacy
Mason’s first college game was in Puerto Rico against No. 8-ranked Louisville, televised on ESPN. While the Gophers lost, it was clear the little-known freshman would not be intimidated.
Mason took a winding road to Minnesota, transferring to four different high schools. He moved around to find the best opportunity and competition. He won three state titles along the way.
“I wasn’t the five-star recruit, the four-star recruit,” Mason said. “I wasn’t a big-time recruit. Just put it like that.”
But almost as soon as he first took the floor in college, it was clear Gophers coach Richard Pitino had found a young gem. Over 120 Gophers games and 1,600 points later, he’s rewarded Pitino for trusting the promising young guard early and often.
“I’m so much smarter and a leader,” he said. “My IQ is so much better now. It’s just ridiculous. You come from high school where you’re the best player. Then you get to the college level, where everybody [was] the best guy. Getting to play against potential NBA players was a shock, but it was like a dream come true. I just had to grow up. I went through some rough times. I knew I had the skill level, but it was just about getting the mind-set.”
Barring a Big Ten tournament mini-miracle, Mason’s one NCAA tournament game will be last March’s loss to Middle Tennessee. Mason played through a hip injury, but he struggled in an 81-72 first-round loss.
This was supposed to be the year he put the U on his back for a deep March Madness run. An autumn that held so much promise gave way to a winter of losing streaks. Along the way, Mason fought through injuries, set career highs (34 points vs. Nebraska on Feb. 6) and showed the same fearlessness he had as a teenage freshman.
“I have not sensed he feels sorry for himself,” Pitino said. “I would understand it. How many games ago were we sitting at 13-3? Now we’re [14-15]. But Nate’s been playing hard and that’s really good to see. He’s still trying to win.”
The wear and tear of heavy minutes, with a shorthanded roster just to keep the Gophers competitive, has been taxing physically and emotionally on Mason. His 39.8 minutes average in the past 10 games leads the Big Ten during that span.
“Nate didn’t want to go out like this,” said his father, Nate Sr. “Beginning of the season, he had high hopes. But when a team is getting torn down, you can’t do too much more.
“He loves his teammates. He loves who he plays for. He’s a soldier. Nate’s never a quitter.”
Getting a victory Wednesday on senior night is how Mason hopes to end his final game at the Barn. But no matter the outcome, he’s thankful for his four years at Minnesota.
“It’s going to be emotional,” Mason said. “The whole city, the coaching staff and my teammates trusted me and were behind me. I trusted Coach Pitino, his goals and his vision. Minnesota has done a lot for me. We’ve been through some rough times, but a lot of good times. It was the best decision I ever made coming here.”