Gophers to have young, talented guards

DeLaSalle High School senior Jarvis Johnson announces his commitment to play basketball for Minnesota on Sept. 12, 2014  at DeLaSalle.

Elizabeth Brumley

DeLaSalle High School senior Jarvis Johnson announces his commitment to play basketball for Minnesota on Sept. 12, 2014 at DeLaSalle.

Jack Satzinger

When Nate Mason played his first game at Minnesota last year, those who watched saw a freshman ready to contribute right away.
 
The Decatur, Ga., native stood out as one of the team’s only bright spots in the 81-68 loss to Louisville, scoring 10 points, tying for a team-high five rebounds and showcasing a knack to finish in traffic. 
 
When the season started, it didn’t seem like Mason would be more than a backup guard behind seniors Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu, but his steady play earned him a starting spot as the year progressed. 
 
Now, as Hollins and Mathieu move on, Mason is the only returning player in Minnesota’s backcourt. 
 
Incoming freshman Jarvis Johnson is working hard to come to school in shape when he moves to campus in mid-June so he is ready to fill the void. 
 
“I’m trying to do what I can to get better and ready for next season, playing at a higher level of basketball,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to be totally honest.”
 
When Johnson committed to play for his hometown school in September, he joined a recruiting class that already had another guard: Kevin Dorsey. 
 
The 5-foot-11-inch Maryland native opted for Minnesota with offers from Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Nebraska and others. Dorsey likely would have been a great fit in now-Texas head coach Shaka Smart’s defensive system at VCU, which has been nicknamed “Havoc” because of the pressure it creates for opponents. 
 
Head coach Richard Pitino — who, like Smart, was an assistant coach at Florida under Billy Donovan — is trying to institute a similar system at Minnesota. Dorsey’s quickness and ability to force turnovers has the Gophers coaching staff excited about what could happen when he plays with Mason or Johnson. 
 
Mason already is poised offensively and a decent collegiate defender, while Johnson led DeLaSalle High School to four consecutive state championships by using his superior athleticism to defend opponents all over the court and throw down violent dunks despite being a point guard. 
 
Johnson and Dorsey will likely need to shore up their outside shooting and more before they are polished guards, but their potential to create turnovers and score in transition could take Pitino’s up-tempo style to new heights. 
 
When Pitino was hired in 2013, he put an emphasis on the team playing aggressively on defense and scoring fast-break points at will, like father Rick Pitino’s Louisville teams. 
 
Minnesota was a pedestrian 257th in KenPom’s adjusted tempo ratings in 2014, but jumped up to 44th in 2015. As long as Dorsey and Johnson come in ready, that ranking should continue to climb. 
 
“I talked to Coach Pitino,” Johnson said, “about being ready to come in confident — don’t be too shy when I get there.” 
 
It isn’t easy for a freshman to come in and be a leader right away. While Mason contributed on the floor from the get-go, he was wary to lead until the year progressed. 
 
“In the beginning of the season, he was more of like a role player. He didn’t really have a voice. He was more quiet, and now he’s really taken that leadership role, and it’s going to lead into next year,” redshirt senior center Mo Walker said last month. 
 
Over the course of the season, Pitino said multiple times that Mason could become one of the Big Ten’s best guards by the time he’s an upperclassman because of his ability to shine in big games despite his youth. 
 
Johnson hopes he can do the same once he gets to Minnesota. 
 
To prepare for that moment, he’s undergoing conditioning and communicating with Gophers trainers to monitor his diet. 
 
When Johnson comes to campus in about seven weeks, he expects to be in top shape so he can hit summer workouts running. 
 
He and Dorsey will need to be quick learners if the Gophers expect to improve next season. Mason, who is now rehabbing a right thumb injury, contributed right away. 
 
Now, as he leads the backcourt moving forward, he’s making sure Johnson and Dorsey do everything they can to make a good first impression, too. 
 
“[I’m] just trying to tell those guys, ‘Come in ready, man. Just we’re trying to make history, really. You need to be ready,’” Mason said last month. “Let’s be ready to do something big.”