EVANSTON, Ill. -- Nate Mason took his game to another level when he had a chance to face some of the Big Ten's top point guards last season.
The Gophers crafty floor leader had 25 points on the road against Michigan's Derrick Walton. He had 21 points on the road against Indiana's Yogi Ferrell. He had 18 points in a win against Maryland's Melo Trimble.
On Sunday, Mason wasn’t challenged individually as much as the Gophers were as a team on the road against Purdue, so he exploded for 31 points and 11 assists in a 91-82 overtime win in West Lafayette.
But Thursday’s matchup at Northwestern puts Mason up against an old nemesis: fellow junior point guard Bryant McIntosh.
“Nate Mason feels like he’s underrated,” Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo said Wednesday. “So this is a great opportunity for him to go head-to-head with one of the top point guards in the league. This will be a fantastic matchup.”
I agree with him.
Mason (14.7 points, 5.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds) is having a better junior season statistically than McIntosh (11.7 points, 5.6 assists and 2.4 rebounds). But McIntosh, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound Indiana native, has the edge in games against Mason, averaging 14.7 to 12 points, 6.7 to 2.7 assists and 4.0 to 2.3 rebounds.
Northwestern is also 3-0 against Minnesota with McIntosh at point guard the last two seasons.
Mason, a 6-2, 190-pound Georgia native, struggled against McIntosh last year with a combined 21 points in two losses to the Wildcats, who won 77-52 in Evanston and 82-58 at Minnesota. In their last meeting at Welsh-Ryan Arena last February, McIntosh had 20 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals. Mason was held to just eight points on 3-for-12 shooting in Minnesota’s worst defeat in Evanston since a 25-point loss in 1944.
With Northwestern winning 20 games last season, McIntosh averaged 13.8 points and 6.7 assists, second in the Big Ten. Mason had the same scoring average (13.8) and his assists were not far behind at 4.5 per game. But the Gophers were 8-23 and just 2-16 in the Big Ten.
Entering 2016-17, McIntosh received recognition as one of the top point guards in the league, deservedly so. Mason’s name often got left out of the early discussion, annoying him and Gophers coach Richard Pitino.
"Why shouldn't Nate be considered one of the top point guards in the league," Pitino said after the Purdue win. "Nobody ever mentions it."
But after the first 30-point, 10-assist performance in school history Sunday at Purdue, Mason is finally receiving high praise from college hoops analysts even outside of the Big Ten.
So can Mason keep that hype going by finally outplaying McIntosh Thursday? That might be the key to another big road victory.
The Wildcats definitely have the Gophers’ number with a 5-1 record against them in the last six games. They are looking for a signature win to put on their NCAA tournament resume. The Gophers feel like they can be a NCAA tourney team as well. This will be the only meeting between the two teams this year, so it could be one way to separate them come selection time in March.