Our player previews come to an end as The Daily Gopher’s coverage of the Minnesota Golden Gopher men’s basketball team begins to wind down. The regular season approaches at a blindly fast speed. We saved arguably the team’s most important player for last. A four year player, three year starter, and under recruited three-star talent who turned himself into an All-Big Ten point guard: senior guard Nate Mason.
Mason comes into he senior year listed at 6’ 2” and weighing 190 pounds. He has the ability to play both the 1 and the 2 when necessary and has seemingly recovered from the hip injury that plagued him at the very end of last season during the Gophers’ brief NCAA Tournament appearance. He seems primed for an excellent senior season.
REVIEW OF 2016-2017
Minnesota’s dramatic turn around last season was in large part thanks to Mason and his incredible productivity while on the court. Speaking of being on the court, there was rarely a time when you wouldn’t find Mason on the court for the maroon and gold. He played in a whooping 84.5% of the team’s minutes. This was both because the roster lacked point guard depth and Nate was essential to the Gophers’ success.
A combination of a high assist rate and lower turnover rate enabled Mason to become an invaluable player and an All-Big Ten First team member. He did a little bit of everything for the Gophers on both sides of the floor, initiating the offense and scoring when called upon and spear-headed the back court on defense. With a 24.8% usage rate, Mason’s load was often a heavy one. Minnesota’s mid-season swoon corresponded with Nate’s most inefficient streak of games during the season. While he was still scoring at a reasonable rate, the increase in turnovers and volume of shots required to score were too high for team success. Once Mason re-established his control of the ball, the Gophers found themselves in the midst of another hot streak.
The team’s success was tightly linked with Mason’s ability to get to the basket on offense and to limit mistakes. He had a fantastic season which enabled the Gophers to be equally successful for long stretches of play throughout the year.
OUTLOOK FOR 2017-2018
With incoming freshman Isaiah Washington receiving a lot of attention for his stellar play and attractive flair, and sophomore Amir Coffey looking like a candidate for the “leap,” it has been easy for Gopher fans to overlook Nate Mason heading into this highly anticipated season. However, the senior point guard will not only be an important leader of this team off the court, he will control the offense for a majority of the time on the court as well. By being an even more efficient scorer and distributor of the ball, Mason can propel the Gopher offense to new heights.
Minnesota ranked 77th in offense efficiency last season (per KenPom). That type of offense doesn’t jump off the page at you but also won’t be a complete liability. Mason’s control of the game, however, can make the Gophers much more potent on the offensive side of the ball. If he continues to improve his decision-making and increase his three-point percentage beyond the pedestrian 36% he shot as a junior, it could lead to a more dangerous Gopher offense. If Mason increases his interior efficiency, in addition to improving his outside shooting percentage, the gains could be significant enough to bump this team’s ceiling even further up.
Mason was asked to carry a heavy minute load last season and at times, especially during the mid-season swoon, it noticeably gave Nate moments of “tired legs.” However, Washington’s presence on the roster could give Mason some much needed spells during games without sacrificing too much production. Keeping Mason fresh for the entire season can only be a positive development for Minnesota this season. Having depth at both guard positions and flexibility to boot could have as much of positive impact on both sides of the ball as improved statistical performances.
Having quality guard play has traditionally been a consistent characteristic of college basketball teams who find success in March. Nate Mason has gotten better every year at Minnesota. If he can find one last level of improvement, parlay this improvement in efficiency with a slightly decreased work load, and continue to be the leader he showed he was capable of last year, the Gophers could find themselves playing for a Big Ten Championship and into the second weekend of the Big Dance.