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Nate Mason could not sleep the night be­fore the Go­phers’ first NCAA tour­na­ment game in four years, so he did some ex­tra scout­ing.

He watched vid­e­o of Middle Ten­nes­see’s point guard, of him­self and even some top NBA guards to study their moves.

Out­side of Mason’s ho­tel win­dow, Go­phers basket­ball fans walked the chilly streets of down­town Mil­wau­kee decked in ma­roon and gold hop­ing for a big win the next day.

Mason, the con­fi­dent All-Big Ten point guard that he is, im­ag­ined those fans cheer­ing his team on at the Mil­wau­kee Bucks’ Brad­ley Center as he led the Go­phers to vic­to­ry — the be­gin­ning of one of those magi­cal March Mad­ness runs he watched oth­er teams have on TV grow­ing up.

“I didn’t sleep,” Mason said. “I was just ex­cit­ed, an­tic­i­pa­ting ev­er­y­thing. But I ap­proach­ed it like you’re the big dog, you’re the al­pha and no­bod­y can mess with you. There’s no rea­son to be scared.”

To under­stand Mason’s men­tal­i­ty is to under­stand how im­port­ant he is to the Go­phers’ suc­cess. Not only has he been their top scor­er the last two seas­ons, but he’s been their swag­ger.

Mason felt in­vin­cible the night be­fore his first NCAA tour­ney game. But a hip in­ju­ry against Middle Ten­nes­see de­railed his game, hum­bled him and led to a sour end­ing to the sea­son in an up­set 81-72 loss to a No. 12 seed.

Eight months later, Mason has gone from lean­ing on crutch­es to the best shape of his life. He is vow­ing to get the No. 15 Go­phers back to the Big Dance, and more, in his seni­or year.

“You can tell he wants to take that next step, what­ever it is,” said coach Rich­ard Pit­i­no, whose team opens Fri­day against South Ca­ro­li­na Up­state at Wil­liams Arena. “When he’s good, we’re re­al­ly good.”

The in­ju­ry

The Gophers were out­scored 10-0 dur­ing an early Middle Ten­nes­see run and in need of a spark. Mason beat his de­fend­er off the drib­ble and drove into the lane, but his jump­er was blocked. It was the start of a score­less first half.

His er­rant shot was the least of his prob­lems. Mason was bumped on the shot and tweaked his left hip. It hurt like heck but he could still move, just a step or two slow­er. An­oth­er col­li­sion in the se­cond half, though, took his pain to a near­ly un­bear­a­ble level.

“I’ve watched it plen­ty of times,” he said. “Prob­a­bly like the 12- or 13-min­ute mark, I was on the left side and I kicked it out jump­ing up in the air. I came down and I knew in­stant­ly I messed it up bad, be­cause I couldn’t run back.”

Mason’s fa­ther, Nate Sr., watched from the crowd as his son grabbed his hip and limped up court. It re­mind­ed him of when Mason played through pain with a sim­i­lar in­ju­ry in high school.

“He was play­ing on the Nike EYBL cir­cuit and went al­most the whole sea­son with a hip in­ju­ry,” Mason Sr. said. “We made him sit down. He kept on play­ing and kept on limp­ing. But he just loved play­ing and com­pet­ing.”

Mason gut­ted out 38 min­utes vs. Middle Ten­nes­see, but it end­ed up be­ing his worst game of the sea­son, may­be his ca­reer, with five points on 2-for-10 shoot­ing and four turn­overs.

“I’m not re­gret­ting any­thing,” he said of play­ing hurt. “It was def­i­nite­ly a bit­ter taste — and just mo­ti­va­tion, es­pe­cial­ly for me to get back there.”

The re­cov­er­y

Mason didn’t know how bad the in­ju­ry was un­til af­ter the Go­phers re­turned home. He left his phone on the team bus when it dropped them off at the Bierman Ath­let­ic Com­plex. Each step was ex­cru­ci­at­ing, so he beg­ged team­mate Bakary Konate to run af­ter the bus to grab his phone.

“I was on crutch­es the next day,” Mason said. “I couldn’t walk.”

The di­ag­no­sis was a hip im­pinge­ment, strained hip flex­or and strained quad­ri­ceps. Doc­tors rec­om­mend­ed hip sur­ger­y, but Mason de­cid­ed against that ap­proach. He lis­tened to form­er Gophers guard Law­rence Mc­Ken­zie, who had the same sur­ger­y and rec­om­mend­ed wait­ing and re­evaluating af­ter this sea­son.

Mason was im­mo­bile for over two months. He gained weight and wasn’t in good shape in May when he was cleared for team work­outs.

That’s when he changed his diet. Mason lost 15 pounds eat­ing sal­ads and chick­en and avoid­ing fried foods. He hit the tread­mill every day to im­prove stami­na.

“It was tough be­cause I picked up so much weight,” he said. “It was like I was stuck and not be­ing able to do any­thing a­bout it. When I got back into the flow of things, it came quick­er and quick­er. I stayed in the gym.”

By June, Mason was play­ing pickup games back home near At­lan­ta and train­ing at IMG Academy in Flori­da. Later, he played in the Twin Cities Pro-Am league.

Ear­ly Au­gust was a turn­ing point. Mason played well at the Chris Paul E­lite Point Guard Camp in North Ca­ro­li­na, where Paul, the Houston Rockets All-Star point guard, gave Mason hip ex­er­cis­es and intro­duced him to yoga.

“That’s when I saw the in­ju­ry wasn’t re­al­ly af­fect­ing him, and he could move ef­fi­cient­ly with­out dis­com­fort,” Mason’s per­son­al train­er and form­er Geor­gia play­er Den­nis Wil­liams said. “His move­ment, speed and quick­ness be­came much bet­ter. And we still hadn’t seen the best of him yet.”

The lead­er

Some upperclassmen would feel threat­ened by a high-pro­file fresh­man point guard such as I­sa­iah Wash­ing­ton com­ing into the pro­gram. Mason, how­ever, has em­braced Wash­ing­ton, call­ing him his little broth­er.

Wash­ing­ton now can’t wait to play with Mason in the same back­court.

“Being around Nate Mason I learn­ed what work­ing hard re­al­ly is,” Wash­ing­ton said. “I thought I was work­ing hard, but just see­ing him and how hard he goes just pushed me to an­oth­er level.”

When the Bob Cousy Award watch list was re­leased in Oc­to­ber, Mason was a­mong the top 20 can­di­dates vying to be the na­tion’s top point guard. He saw his name a­gain Thurs­day, when the Nai­smith Tro­phy (basket­ball’s Heisman Tro­phy) can­di­date list of 50 top play­ers was re­leased.

Go­phers fans still get gid­dy over the 31-point, 11-as­sist game Mason had in a victory at e­ven­tu­al Big Ten cham­pi­on Pur­due last sea­son. No U play­er had ever had a 30-and-10 game.

With Mason lead­ing the way, team ex­pec­ta­tions are the high­est they have been in de­cades. Some preseason pre­dic­tions have the Go­phers as the top chal­leng­er to Mich­i­gan State for the con­fer­ence crown.

“We proved last year that any­thing can hap­pen,” Mason said. “Big Ten cham­pi­on­ship. That’s the goal.”

The De­ca­tur, Ga., na­tive has grown from a quiet kid, the high school gym rat who loved tak­ing big shots, to a vo­cal, emo­tio­nal team lead­er. He was voted team captain again this season. With his voice and his play, Mason pow­ers Min­ne­so­ta.

“He’s a re­al­ly good lead­er by ex­am­ple,” for­ward Jor­dan Mur­phy said. “He’s prob­a­bly the best lead­er I’ve been around.”

In A­pril, Mason was just start­ing re­cov­er­y when he asked the NBA Under­class­men Ad­vi­so­ry Committee for ad­vice on his draft sta­tus. Their an­swer was sim­ply not to de­clare early. He wasn’t on their list.

That gave him even more mo­ti­va­tion to re­turn strong­er and e­rase the night­mare of his dis­as­trous NCAA tour­na­ment game.

“I know I played hor­rif­ic,” Mason said. “It was al­ways in the back of my mind when I was work­ing out over the sum­mer. It def­i­nite­ly mo­ti­vates me. I want to get back.”