Freshman Mason emerging as Gophers’ most consistent guard
MINNEAPOLIS — In an effort to shake things up with his struggling team, Gophers second-year coach Richard Pitino moved Minnesota’s starting lineup around for Tuesday’s game against Iowa.
One of those moves was inserting freshman guard Nate Mason into the starting five while bumping senior DeAndre Mathieu to the bench to start the game. In his first career start, Mason thrived.
Mason played a career-high 33 minutes and scored 17 points, his second-highest total of the season. And during a second-half run in which the Gophers turned a 17-point deficit into a four-point lead, Mason was one of two players leading the scoring charge.
"I felt like someone had to step up big and try to will us to victory," Mason said after the game.
In the end, Mason’s 17-point effort wasn’t enough to help Minnesota overcome the Hawkeyes, who stole a 77-75 win at Williams Arena. But Tuesday’s performance reiterated the fact that Mason has been one of the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing first half of the season.
Mason came to the Gophers from Decatur, Ga., as a three-star recruit. The hope was that he’d absorb plenty of knowledge from Minnesota’s two senior guards, Mathieu and Andre Hollins.
What has transpired through 18 games, though, is that Mason has emerged as perhaps the Gophers’ most consistent guard — and one of the school’s most impactful freshmen in quite a while. After scoring 17 points Tuesday against Iowa, Mason is now averaging in double-figures (10.3 points per game). His 2.8 assists per game are second on the team, and he’s also taking good care of the ball by averaging less than one turnover a game (0.9).
Top put Mason’s numbers into perspective, he’s on pace to score more than Hollins did as a freshman (8.7 ppg). Mason could also become the first Gophers freshman to average double-figures since Kris Humphries scored 21.7 points per game for Minnesota in the 2003-04 season.
"I think he’s a really, really good player," Pitino said of Mason. "He does things that really good players do."
In the loss to Iowa, Mason and Carlos Morris both caught fire during the same second-half stretch. After the Hawkeyes took a 51-34 lead early in the second half, that duo sparked a Gophers run to cut Iowa’s lead to seven. During that stretch Mason scored 11 of his 17 points, while Morris chipped in eight.
Mason didn’t just do so by getting to the rim, but made a handful of jumpers. That included a 3-pointer to cut it to an eight-point game, and another jumper in which the freshman hung in the air before finishing the shot. He also hit a jumper from the free-throw line and found the rim for a layup while navigating through traffic. Mason’s 3-pointer from the top of the key cut Iowa’s lead to single digits and injected some life into the previously quiet Williams Arena crowd.
"Nate was huge today," Mathieu said after Tuesday’s loss. "He controlled the game."
Tuesday was already the 11th time in 18 games that Mason has scored in double figures. Earlier this season he was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week, becoming just the second Gophers player to earn that award (Joe Coleman did so during the 2011-12 season). The individual accolade was even more impressive considering Mason won it while playing in a conference that includes stud freshmen D’Angelo Russell of Ohio State, Maryland’s Melo Trimble and Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr.
When Pitino asked who his most consistent player or players have been this season, Mason’s name was the first name out of his mouth.
"When you say consistent, I think I know what I’m going to get out of Nate," Pitino said.
What the Gophers have gotten from the freshman guard is someone who has yet to look overwhelmed, regardless of the situation. Mason rarely panics in big moments and has continued to play with a calming confidence.
Mason’s steady play through his first 18 career games has earned him more playing time. Minnesota hopes it’s a sign of more things to come from the team’s top freshman.
"When I’m thinking about adjusting the lineup a little bit, my biggest thing was I want to play him more," Pitino said. "Certainly, he was very, very good, made some big-time plays."
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