MINNEAPOLIS (AP) There's a point in each college basketball season when a player's year in school matters a lot less than his production.
''I think Nate's one of our best players. I think he needs to be on the court,'' coach Richard Pitino said Friday, confirming that Mason will remain in the lineup Saturday against Rutgers with Mathieu in a reserve role.
The Gophers (11-7, 0-5) needed a spark this week, so Pitino switched three spots among the first five. The most notable change was Mason for Mathieu, who was the team's most valuable player last season and had several strong, steady performances in December.
The 5-foot-9 Mathieu started turning the ball over at a troubling rate once conference play started, though, and against Iowa, one of the lankiest teams in the Big Ten, size was as important as ever. Mathieu still played 27 minutes, including a solid second half, and Pitino said he plans to give him more time than that even off the bench.
But the Gophers might have found their floor leader not only for the rest of the winter but the future. Their second-half surge fell short in a 77-75 loss, but Mason had 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting, four assists, three steals and no turnovers in 33 minutes.
''I really don't care if I'm coming off the bench or starting. I just want to play and just make us win, that's all,'' the soft-spoken Mason said.
The rotation has shrunk from a handful of unexpected departures from the program, leaving Mason as the only top-eight player recruited by Pitino straight out of high school. Mathieu and small forward Carlos Morris were brought in by Pitino from junior colleges, and power forward Joey King transferred from Drake.
As with most programs in transition, the Gophers are in the relatively awkward stage of mismatched combinations due to the differences in styles between Pitino and predecessor Tubby Smith. Senior shooting guard Andre Hollins, who started as a point guard under Smith, had his best year as a sophomore before Pitino took over. So Mason's ascendance has just as much to do with his fit with the scheme as with his ability compared to the senior backcourt tandem.
Most critical for Mason and the Gophers has been his assist-to-turnover ratio, now at a team-best 3.19. Mathieu's has dropped to 2.36. Mathieu, sensing the transition, challenged Mason before the game against Iowa.
''He always tries to tell me, `Next year, it's going to be your team. I'm going to need you to carry this team,' and stuff like that,'' Mason said. ''So it's good to have him there.''
There's always room for improvement, though, starting at the foul line. Mason missed the front end of a one-and-one in the closing minutes against the Hawkeyes, lowering his season free-throw percentage to 60.
Pitino had all the players currently lower than 70 percent put in extra work, and Mason said he's been shooting 350 foul shots per day this week. In conference play, the Gophers are shooting a mere 64.1 percent from the line, compared to 72.8 for their opponents. No wonder they've lost four of their first five games by five points or fewer.
With Mason, his problem has been mechanical, an inconsistency in the follow-through motion with his wrist.
''Just concentrating and relaxing, really,'' Mason said. ''Just focusing on making free throws, instead of anything else.''