The Gophers will go as far as Mason and Murphy can guide them as both are coming off promising years despite an eight win season. Nate led the team with 13.8 points and 4.5 assists per game while Murphy led the squad in rebounding at eight per night and totaled 11.6 points per contest.
The first step for the pair is guiding their team into the new year with last year as a distant memory that they learned from, but are now happy to have in the past.
“Obviously last year was very difficult,” said Mason. “But every day we come in and work very hard. We do a lot together building a team bond and every day we come together and know what our focus is.”
“I think last year is already long behind us,” Murphy said. “It’s a really good growing experience and learning experience that we are going to use as motivation. We are going to be overlooked this year. Last year will be motivation more than anything.”
Richard Pitino spoke separately to his newcomers and his returning veterans about last season recently as they prepared for practice. The message to the veterans was clear.
“It’s time to grow, it’s time to mature is what he told us,” said Murphy. “It’s time to grow as a person and a player. Time to handle our business.
“We need to all play better together obviously but we also have to show the younger guys how to play. Teach them how to play in the Big Ten as we have four freshmen that have come in.”
Minnesota added Top 40 talent Amir Coffey, top 100 talent Eric Curry, top 150 talent Michael Hurt, and walk-on Brady Rudrud who de-committed from national D3 champion St. Thomas and turned down several NSIC scholarship offers to walk-on for the Gophers.
With all of these bodies Minnesota won’t have to deal with practice issues of not enough players to go against in practice. At one point last year Minnesota was without Reggie Lynch in practice because of his shoulder, they didn’t have Carlos Morris who was kicked off the team, Ahmad Gilbert had a winter injury that forced him out, and they didn’t have the suspended players at the end of the year.
There were many times where Coach Pitino didn’t even have enough guys to go five on five in practice. Those are all experiences that Murphy and Mason will use to push their team this winter.
Now the Gophers have four returning starters, they have two transfers, four incoming freshman, last year’s reserves, and three walk-ons to work against. And the talent has been a serious upgrade.
“The competition in practice has been ridiculous,” said Mason. “We look forward to practice now and the coaches look forward to practices now. It’s fun. It’s fun to see how much talent we have and how good we could be.”
“It’s super competitive in practice,” Murphy said. “It’s just great to have so many post men this year. And so many smart, and talented post men. One day I will have 6-foot-9 freshman Eric Curry on me and the next day I have junior Gaston Diedhiou I’m against.
“Some days I have to make a move to be quicker than a guy and other days I have to make moves to be stronger than the guy I’m against. It’s stuff like that that is making our practices better.”
When you go to a Gopher practice now you see long and athletic bodies all over the court. Coach Pitino now has a team of long athletic players and they are at nearly every position on the floor including lead guard where Stephon Sharp and Dupree McBrayer are long guards getting work.
This is no doubt what Coach Pitino had in mind when he was talking about the team he wanted to have.
“We want to be able to get stops on defense and run,” said Mason. “Last year we showed that speed was at times our strength. This year we want to show that our speed will get us over the top and it will help us getting stops on defense. We want to get stops and get out and run.”
Murphy took the Big Ten by storm last year putting up several double-doubles as he put up about 12 and 8 in 27 minutes each game which was well above what was expected. What does Murphy have planned for an encore?
“I think I need to expand my game more,” said Murphy. “I think I need to improve my jumpshot and I need to be able to take guys with a straight line drive, stuff like that. In my opinion every area of my game needs improving. I’m not really satisfied with where I’m at. I need to improve a lot.”
As a team this Minnesota club is different and that has been said many times before. But there is one area where Pitino’s 16-17 bunch looks much different than some of his past teams.
“The length of club will be such an advantage,” said Mason. “We’ve been through a lot here, we’ve had two bad seasons. That is motivating us because we’ve been fighting in practice. Every day is a fight. We come to practice and we work.”
“Last year has helped me become more perseverant,” Murphy said. “I now know that if I have a tough time I know that I’ve been through worse. I’ve learned to work through adversity. Last year will help us get through the grind of this year. If we play up to our potential we will be really good.”