After winning the NIT last year, Minnesota‘s fortunes this season were widely believed to be keyed by their veterans. Seniors Andre Hollins, Deandre Mathieu, Maurice Walker and Elliott Eliason all played large roles in last season’s transition from Tubby Smith to Richard Pitino’s NIT championship squad. They are in fact doing so this season, with Hollins leading the team in scoring, Walker leading the team in rebounds and blocks, and Mathieu leading the team in assists. But it has also been freshman Nate Mason who has made his presence felt as the first guard off the bench. His importance has been necessary with the loss of Daquien McNeil to his ongoing legal issues, and Mason has shined with all of the extra responsibility.
On Monday night, the Gophers forced North Dakota into a whopping 25 turnovers (33.8 percent of their possessions). Most of the damage was done with their pressure defense, with Mason serving as the catalyst with six steals. Mason also ended the game with eight assists, which along with his steals output were career bests for the first-year player. On Wednesday night, the Gophers forced Southern into another 20 miscues, logging 11 of those in the form of steals. Mason has been excellent in Pitino’s pressure style, showing the athleticism necessary to recover when other teams beat the press. The precocious freshman is averaging 9.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, while hitting 46.7 percent of his threes. This comes from a player who was ranked only 135th in his class, according to 24/7 sports composite rankings.