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Gophers notebook: Isaiah Washington arrives

After losing for the ninth time in 10 games Tuesday, Minnesota’s season is essentially beyond repair. At 14-12 (3-10), the Gophers’ only hope for an NCAA tournament berth is winning the Big Ten tournament in New York next month; a herculean task for a roster that’s been decimated by injuries and the suspension of Reggie Lynch.

Minnesota will enter tonight’s game against Indiana potentially missing four of their top six players (Lynch, Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer, Eric Curry). They’ll need to win some games in a hurry to even have a shot at the NIT, although I’m not sure playing additional, largely meaningless games in March would even be a good thing at this point for the banged-up Gophers.

In their last two games, though, Richard Pitino’s crew showed a great deal of fight. Last Saturday, they nearly took out (24) Michigan on the road, losing 76-73 in overtime. Minnesota held a ten-point lead midway through the second half, before fading late as their overworked starters wore down, a common theme throughout the conference season. On Tuesday, they stayed competitive with Nebraska—a possible tournament team this year–for 40 minutes, eventually losing by six.

Yes, both games ended in losses, and staying competitive is surely little consolation for a fan base that’s watched a Top 15 team plummet to the bottom of the Big Ten standings. What should give Gophers fans genuine reason for optimism, however, is the emergence of Isaiah Washington.

Washington had a magnificent game against the Wolverines. In 32 minutes, he scored 26 points on 11-for-16 shooting, adding six rebounds and three assists while committing just one turnover. The 26 points were the most in a Big Ten game by a Gopher freshman since Kris Humphries in 2004. His rotation spot secure after a 15 point, 7 assist game against Iowa, Washington finally showed why he was a coveted 4-star recruit that Pitino wanted badly.

Pushing the pace but remaining under control, Washington didn’t settle for long, contested jumpers—a problem that’s plagued him all season. He scored most of his baskets around the rim and in the lane, displaying an impressive offensive arsenal. He hit floaters over the outstretched arms of Michigan’s bigs, mid-range 10-footers in the lane after beating his man off the dribble, and contested layups in traffic. On the day, he attempted just two threes, making one. It was a remarkable performance, and helped earn him Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.

Three days later against the Cornhuskers, Washington again delivered, this time filling up the stat sheet with a strong all-around game. Washington scored ten points, dished out eight assists, and grabbed four rebounds, while not committing a turnover in 31 minutes. Several times he found big men for easy baskets via the pick-and-roll or penetration, drawing in Nebraska’s interior defenders after blowing past his man. In his last three games, he’s averaged 17 points, 6 assists, 3.7 rebounds and less than 1 turnover per game.

Washington’s emergence comes on the heels of a four game stretch in which he was essentially benched by Pitino—playing twenty minutes total. Pitino was fed up, justifiably so, with Washington’s horrific shot selection, and clearly tried to send a message that he needed to adjust his style of play. Even after the Michigan game, Pitino made a point of continuing to send that message through the media.

“He’s just got really, really bad habits,” he told reporters Monday. “When you are shooting 20 percent from three, you probably shouldn’t take a lot of threes. And that is taking him some time to understand that. I think sometimes freshman want to prove you wrong: ‘No, I can make shots.’”

When I first saw those quotes, which came two days after the Michigan game, I found it to be odd timing. Why call out Washington publicly at a time when he’s finally figuring things out? It makes sense, though, given what we know about Washington’s persona. He doesn’t seem like a player who lacks confidence, and so my guess is Pitino’s attempt here was to continue to reinforce the values he’s been trying to instill in him all season, understanding that being critical to the media isn’t going to do much damage to Washington’s bravado.

Either way, Washington’s clearly figuring some things out, after struggling mightily through most of the season’s first three months. With five games left in the regular season and the Big Ten tournament, he’ll get a chance to continue to play heavy minutes against strong opponents. A continuation of this stretch through February would surely assuage some of the concerns fans may have about turning over the keys to the offense to him next season, after his senior mentor, Nate Mason, graduates.

Putting Mason’s career in context

 Nate Mason is entering the final few games of what’s been, In my view, an underappreciated career. Mason will graduate as the program’s best point guard since Bobby Jackson led the team to a Final Four in 1997. After a career high 34 points against Nebraska, Mason’s now averaging 16.4 points, 4.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game in his senior season, besting his stats from last season, when he earned first team all-Big Ten. Three times, he’s ranked in the top ten in the conference in assists, twice in points and steals.

Unfortunately for Mason, his four years haven’t produced a lot of winning. Last year, of course, is the exception, when he led the Gophers to a top-4 Big Ten finish and No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If Minnesota misses the NIT this season, though, three of his four seasons will end without any postseason play. That’s not Mason’s fault, but it’s probably prevented him from getting the national attention he deserves. He wasn’t, for example, named as one of the ten finalists for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year award, after making the initial list of 20 at the start of the year.

Mason’s performance in the crazy game against Alabama earlier this year is perhaps a fitting metaphor for his career. Going head-to-head with Alabama’s Collin Sexton, one of the best point guards in the nation and a likely lottery pick, Mason was the better player through the first 25 minutes, scoring 20 points on just 10 shots while leading the Gophers to a commanding lead over the ranked Crimson Tide. Mason had Barclays Center on its feet after he crossed over Sexton so violently that the freshman fell to the ground, Mason shooting him a quick look before drilling a three. Two minutes later, though, he lost his cool, earning two technical fouls and getting ejected, just as he looked primed to put on a virtuoso performance.

Like that game, Mason’s career has been filled with plenty of great moments and terrific play, but without many opportunities to display his supreme talent when it’s mattered most.

Fighting for the bye

 The 14-team Big Ten tournament is structured such that the top four teams in the conference earn double-byes, directly into the quarterfinals. The middle six teams earn a single bye into the second round. The bottom four teams must compete on the tournament’s first day, meaning they’d have to win five games in five days to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, a nearly impossible task.

If you’re looking for a reason to watch the regular season’s final five games, keep this in mind: Minnesota is currently in a mix with Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Rutgers at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. One of those five teams will likely finish tenth and earn the bye, while the other four will be forced to play on day one.

If you want to really stretch to come up with a scenario that includes the Gophers making the NCAA Tournament, it’s this: Get Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer back and relatively healthy, earn the No. 10 seed, then win four straight at Madison Square Garden. The odds of that happening are extremely low, of course, but it becomes that much harder if they have to win five straight, instead of four, in New York.

After games against Indiana and Michigan State, Minnesota plays Wisconsin and Iowa in a 3-day span, February 19 and 21. Sweeping those two games might be enough to get them up to the 10 seed. It’s not much to hope for, I know, but this is where the season is at as Minnesota enters the final three weeks of the season.


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