Column: Mason right man to aid Gophers with McNeil out

Freshman Nate Mason continues to impress with weekend performances

David Nelson

The pressure of playing inside Madison Square Garden can be insurmountable for some players. For others, it’s an opportunity to prove their worth.

And when freshman guard Nate Mason played in one of basketball’s great cathedrals, the rookie performed with a poise that seemed beyond his years.

Everyone who watched the Gophers play during the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York City over Thanksgiving weekend saw Mason continue to play with the confidence and intelligence required for every guard in Division I college basketball.

It looks like head coach Richard Pitino struck gold with the Decatur, Ga., native. Mason won’t just be an important piece for the future — he’ll be someone who will be counted on to produce this season with sophomore guard Daquein McNeil out.

Mason combined to put up 18 points and five assists in the 47 minutes he played during the two-game stretch.

“We always liked him, but you never know until the lights come on,” Pitino said.

But after one game of watching Mason play, Pitino knew he had found a quality player.

“That Louisville game surprised me because he was ready to play,” Pitino said.

With McNeil suspended, Mason’s presence became all the more important, as the Gophers will rely on the freshman to pick up some of the slack.

“A lot of guys now need to fill roles that they’re not used to filling,” Pitino said. “We’re almost having to hit reset.”

But if there’s one person who seems up for the task, it’s Mason.

He led with a quiet confidence and was arguably the Gophers’ best player this past weekend.

Despite the quick results Minnesota has seen, it’s not a given that a recruit will turn into a star or even become a large part of the team.

Look no further than former University of Arizona point guard Josiah Turner.

Turner ranked as the top prospect coming out of California in the 2011 class, and ESPN graded him as one the best players in the nation from that class. In 29 collegiate games, Turner mustered just 6.8 points per contest and dished out 2.4 assists per game.

The trend continued with current Minnesota Timberwolf Zach LaVine during his time at UCLA.

LaVine — who ranked as the 11th-best point guard out of high school — recorded just 1.8 assists per game for the Bruins.

In Mason’s six games, the No. 31-ranked point guard from the class of 2014 looks like the real deal.

Still, a probable increase in minutes over the next two weeks — and possibly the rest of the season — will challenge the freshman’s basketball IQ.

But from what he has shown so far, look for Mason to thrive in an increased role.