MINNEAPOLIS (AP) ��� In the month of March, when college basketball players are kings, Nate Mason could barely find the courage to leave his house last season.
When Dupree McBrayer walked around the Minnesota campus, he could hear the whispers and the snickers from classmates as he kept his head low and tried to avoid eye contact.
"It was embarrassing," McBrayer told The Associated Press. "Walking around, people just looking at us and saying, 'Ohhh that's them.'"
The two friends were suspended at the end of a miserable season for their connection to a sex video that briefly was posted on social media. They missed the final four games of the season and found themselves to be, at best, the butt of jokes and, at worst, an example of a program that had gone astray in Richard Pitino's third season as coach.
"It was really embarrassing, like to the point where I didn't want to leave the house," Mason said. "I didn't really want to do anything. I was just in the gym. I stayed in the gym."
Kevin Dorsey, a third teammate who was shown with a woman in the video, decided to transfer to Colorado State to get away from the scrutiny and the embarrassment.
Mason and McBrayer stayed put and both have been integral parts of a team that has enjoyed one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in the country this season. After winning just eight games last season, including two in the Big Ten, the Golden Gophers went 23-8 and 11-7 in the conference to earn a double-bye in this week's conference tournament.
Mason was named first team All-Big Ten, Pitino won coach of the year honors and McBrayer has been a vital sixth man. Mason leads the team in scoring and assists and McBrayer is fourth on the team in scoring and minutes played in what has been a season of redemption for a program that cratered last year.
"The easy thing for them would have been transfer back somewhere close to home," Pitino said. "I have to give their parents credit. They were bought into what we were all about. And they were supportive of us disciplining their children as well as holding them accountable, but also educating. If you don't have great parents like that, it probably would've been difficult to keep everyone together."
Mason and McBrayer were not seen in the portion of the video that was inadvertently posted on Dorsey's social media, but they were implicated when Pitino chose to suspend all three after the incident. There were no criminal accusations, just an immature and careless act by three 20-year-olds.
"I didn't like the way they were acting," Pitino said of his reason for the suspensions. "I thought their behavior was reckless and I just didn't think that was in line with what we're trying to teach. Also, I wanted to hold them accountable but also protect them."
Pitino felt that pulling them from the games would help to get them out of the spotlight and shield them from some of the criticism, which resonated with the players. He also brought in speakers over the summer to educate his players on community involvement, the pressures of being a high-profile college athlete and sexual harassment and assault.
"He stuck with me through it and I would feel like a coward if I left," Mason said. "Yeah, it was rough. But Coach Pitino was a big reason why I stayed. I'm glad I stayed."
All season long the Gophers have shown a mental toughness that formed during the trials of last season. They responded to a five-game skid in conference play with an eight-game winning streak to all but lock up a bid to the NCAA Tournament. And after being picked to finish 13th in the conference, the Gophers go to Washington, D.C., for the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 4 seed.
"We've been through a lot," Mason said, chuckling as he reflected on the adversity of the past year. "It kind of prepared us for it. Us being mentally tough is one of our biggest strengths we have. We really don't let anything get to us. If something happens, we move right past it."
Even after a loss at Wisconsin to end the regular season, Mason, McBrayer and the Gophers head into postseason play brimming with confidence after all they have endured.
"They can all draw back to, not only weren't you winning, you weren't getting it done off the court," Pitino said. "Sometimes you've got to learn the hard way. So those returners have been a great influence."
And when they do get out on campus these days?
"Heads held high," McBrayer said with a smile. "Everybody's saying good game. Last year we didn't get none of that. People sticking around after the game. It's cool to have a lot of love on campus and from little kids. I really appreciate that."
More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org