For the second time this season, Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino went with youth over experience by replacing senior starting point guard DeAndre Mathieu with freshman Nate Mason in Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin.
A month ago, the move helped spark Minnesota to its first Big Ten win after a 0-5 start, but Pitino said it felt weird to have Mathieu come off the bench and eventually switched back — for a while.
“DeAndre is just not having a great year,” Pitino said Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean it’s his fault that we haven’t won some games. It’s a collective thing. Nate’s playing well. Gotta play the players who are playing well.”
Their numbers aren’t much different.
Mason is averaging 9.6 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.9 steals; Mathieu averages 8.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.1 steals. Mason is a better three-point shooter (42 percent to 29.7 percent), but Mathieu is more reliable from the free-throw line (71.4 to 63.4).
The biggest difference is their on-court demeanor.
During a 72-66 loss to Northwestern last week at Williams Arena, Mathieu’s poor body language and frustrated attitude hurt his play and, ultimately, the team — one of the reasons Pitino started Mason in Saturday’s 63-53 loss to the Badgers in Madison.
Mathieu responded with 11 points. Mason also had 11 points with five assists and only one turnover.
“Deandre is a great kid,” Pitino said. “He gets down on himself a little bit. Everybody’s personality is different. (Mason’s) like an old soul out there on the court.”
After the game, Mason was asked if Mathieu’s frustration against Northwestern was disappointing to see coming from a senior captain.
“Coming from a leader, we feel it a lot,” he said. “In practice, he’s been great (since losing his spot). He was a great teammate today. I think it will carry over.”
Mason wasn’t the only young player getting more playing time against Wisconsin. Sophomore forward Charles Buggs started his fourth straight game and played a career-high 31 minutes. Freshman posts Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate also saw the court in key moments, displaying how badly they need game experience.
But with long-shot NCAA tournament hopes, the moves make sense — although Pitino denied that he’s doing that with Konate and Diedhiou.
With Mason, it’s different. Minnesota is preparing him for a bigger role next season, when the Gophers will be without Mathieu and Andre Hollins. Mason and junior college transfer Carlos Morris will be the only returning guards with experience in 2015-16.
Morris isn’t a leader, Pitino said adamantly Wednesday. So that places responsibility on Mason to mentor incoming freshman guards Kevin Dorsey, Jarvis Johnson and Dupree McBrayer.
Mason already is excited for that opportunity.
“I can’t wait for them to get here so we can get in the gym and work on being one of the best backcourts in the nation next year,” he said. “I’m going to have to pass on the leadership skills.”
Junior forward Joey King said there’s no drop-off from Mathieu to Mason despite the age difference. He respects how hard each player competes against the other in practice each week.
“They both bring different things to the court,” King said. “Obviously, Coach just looks for both of them to get on the ball and play great defense. Both of them can score and pass the ball extremely well.”
From the beginning, Mason has been fearless; he loves being on the big stage.
That may be what the Gophers (16-12, 5-10 Big Ten)need from their floor leader, starting with Thursday night’s game against Michigan State (19-8, 10-4).
“If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to make big plays,” Pitino said. “Guys have got to look at you and say, ‘This guy is ready to go to war and he’s not afraid of anything.’ Nate has shown that. That is immediately going to give him credibility as a player.”
Follow Marcus R. Fuller at twitter.com/GophersNow.