Michigan fans don’t particularly like Minnesota point guard Nate Mason.
After a near-double-double and 20-point outing in the Golden Gophers’ two games against the Wolverines last season, the resentment makes sense.
But when Mason took Big Ten first-team honors over Derrick Walton Jr. for the 2016-17 season, the indignation reached another level.
After all was said and done, though, it was Michigan that got the last laugh. The Wolverines were catapulted to the Sweet Sixteen because of Walton’s elite play, while Mason and Minnesota suffered a first round upset to Middle Tennessee State.
Forward Jordan Murphy wasn’t discussed as much as Mason, but he still had his way against Michigan last year. In the first contest, especially, Murphy wiped the floor with the Wolverines, notching 16 points and 15 rebounds in an overtime victory.
The 2017-18 season has been a flipped script for the Golden Gophers (3-8 Big Ten, 14-10 overall). Dealing with the loss of three key players, Minnesota is positioned at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Minnesota will need more frequent All-American performances by Murphy and Mason to maintain a thread of hope to resurrect an already-disappointing season.
The Daily sat down with Murphy and Mason at Big Ten Media Day in October to talk about battling depth issues, their lack of roster turnover and what their expectations for the season were.
The Michigan Daily: The team didn’t face a lot of roster turnover from last year. What improvements are you hoping to see this season? Have any of them been on display after the offseason?
Jordan Murphy: Building off the chemistry we had last year is one of the biggest things I was looking forward to. Really one of my goals. We do a good job of hanging out off the court to build that chemistry. Just staying connected with each other, whether that’s a group chat or just talking. It’s one of the most important things that we’ve done.
Nate Mason: We’re definitely a little more connected. Our chemistry is there. But we’ve still got two, three new guys that we need to rely on to help us out. Isaiah Washington, Jamir Harris, Davonte Fitzgerald. Those are three new guys that are gonna play this year. We gotta get them on the same page. It’s gonna take a while, but it’s better now than before it’s too late.
TMD: Before the season even began, the team lost Eric Curry for the year because of an ACL tear. How do you plan on making up for that loss?
JM: We’re trying guys at different positions. We’re getting Davonte ready for when he’s ready to go full contact. Mixing it up a bit with the big men. Having guys step up in that position, knowing that there are rebounds to get, there are points and minutes to be had. Making sure guys understand that and making sure they step up is the biggest thing.
NM: Eric was a very good player for us coming off the bench last year. He primarily backed up Murphy. But we’ve got Davonte Fitzgerald. He’s gonna come in and take that spot. He’s getting healthy and he’s gonna be good. It’s just a matter of being healthy and being in sync. Also gotta keep Murphy out of foul trouble.
TMD: Winning eight of your last nine games last season propelled Minnesota to the NCAA Tournament. What was going well during that stretch that you think can continue into this season?
JM: Guys started to understand their roles more. As to the rest of the season, the guys started to really find their niches inside of their lineups. We started making good lineups that meshed well with each other. Guys started to get in the gym more and work harder and harder as it got towards the end of the season.
NM: I mean, it was just a will. We sat down as a team, had a team meeting, a players-only meeting. We just discussed the will. We put it out there and we wanted to fix it. We were focused, locked in and that was it.
TMD: Minnesota is projected to finish top three in the Big Ten standings this year. What are your expectations for the season?
JM: Our goal is always gonna be a Big Ten title. That’s the first thing on our mind. Always gotta think about the big goals that we have for our team and that’s the main thing: a Big Ten title.
NM: We want to win the Big Ten title. That’s our goal: we want a Big Ten title. We’ve got a chance to do it, and the only thing that can stop us is ourselves. This is the most talented team I’ve ever been around, it’s crazy. If we pull all together and play as one, we have a chance.