Fran Fraschilla: U Point Guards Critical
It might be anyone’s guess whether Nate Mason’s injured left ankle allows him to play Wednesday night against Illinois but ESPN basketball authority Fran Fraschilla is clear about the senior point guard’s importance to the Gophers.
Mason hurt his ankle December 23 and didn’t dress for last Saturday’s game with Harvard. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said recently he didn’t know about Mason’s availability for Illinois.
The Gophers, 1-1 in Big Ten competition so far, have both Illinois and Indiana (Saturday) at home before playing four of their five following games on the road. Without Mason, the likelihood of two wins this week diminishes and could be difficult.
“If he’s not the best point guard in the Big Ten, it’s a very short list and he’s on it,” Fraschilla told Sports Headliners by telephone Sunday. “To have him return as quickly and healthy as possible is critical.”
Without Mason, freshman Isaiah Washington started at point guard against Harvard. The 6-foot-1, 160-pound Washington hustled for a team-leading 13 rebounds and was effective defensively, but he had only two assists and made just four of 17 field goal attempts.
Washington’s shooting (34 percent made field goals) and decision making with the basketball have frequently been disappointing through the first 15 games of the season. There have been high expectations about Washington after he became one of the nation’s most acclaimed point guards while playing at St. Raymond’s in New York City.
Fraschilla watched the former state of New York Mr. Basketball in AAU basketball even before he arrived in Minneapolis. Fraschilla said it’s typical of a talented freshman to be struggling early on in his career. “Just trying to do too much and not yet understanding that he has to value the ball and shot selection a little bit more than he did on the AAU circuit—and that will come.”
But if Mason can’t play tomorrow night (or is sidelined longer), the Gophers have to hope Washington matures fast. In Mason’s absence, Pitino is likely to continue using Washington as his starting point guard. Even when Mason returns, Washington is all but certain to potentially be the highest impact player off the bench. Minnesota’s lack of depth is the team’s biggest weakness.
“He (Washington) now needs to understand that every possession in the Big Ten is going to be critical,” Fraschilla said. “One play can make or break your season. One great decision, or bad decision, can affect whether you help your team get to the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully that was the lesson coming out of nonconference play for him.”
The depth issue gives Fraschilla pause about Minnesota’s success this winter but he likes the skills of several players including the shot-blocking of both center Reggie Lynch and power forward Jordan Murphy. Murphy also has 15 consecutive double-doubles in points and rebounds this season.
By Saturday night he could have the most NCAA consecutive games of double-doubles to start a season since Tim Duncan in 1996-1997. ”I became a really big fan of his early in the year when he got off to such a great start,” said Fraschilla who thinks Murphy can be named a first-team All-Big Ten player this year.
The Gophers were 7-0 and ranked in the top 15 nationally when Fraschilla was the ESPN analyst doing their game with Miami. Since losing to the Hurricanes, Minnesota has dropped out of the top 25 rankings and hasn’t looked like the same team that had impressive early wins against Providence and Alabama.
Minnesota’s other starting guard Dupree McBrayer was injured and missed the Miami game. That forced Washington into the starting lineup alongside Mason. Washington scored 14 points but made some mistakes, including five turnovers, that contributed to the loss. Bench players totaled two rebounds, no points and no assists against No. 10 ranked Miami.
Depth was a concern even before the season because sophomore forward Eric Curry is out until next fall following ACL surgery on his left knee. The 6-9 Curry showed during his freshman season while averaging over five points and five rebounds that he was going to be an impact player coming off the bench and Minnesota’s best sub.
Prior to the Miami game there was talk the Gophers might challenge Michigan State for the Big Ten title and Minnesota looked like the league’s No. 2 team. Fraschilla thinks the Gophers still can finish high in the conference standings and earn their way into the NCAA Tournament. “I would say right now they still have a chance in my mind to be the third best team (after Michigan State and Purdue) in the conference,” he said.
Whether Minnesota can equal or better last season’s 11-7 Big Ten record will have much to do with Mason’s injured ankle. Fraschilla refers to Mason, who was all-Big Ten last season, as the team’s “catalyst.”
“You can’t ask a team that doesn’t have the depth that the Gophers have, and are trying to break in a talented but erratic freshman point guard, to play without their team leader for very long,” Fraschilla said.
Shorn Morris, the Big Ten Network analyst who was at Williams Arena for the Harvard game, also sees Minnesota as the league’s third best team behind Michigan State and Purdue. The upcoming games with Illinois (0-2, 10-5) and Indiana (1-1, 8-6) will tell more about the Gophers but he’s not ready to label them must-win opportunities.
“I think it’s really important (to win those games), especially when let’s not forget they’re already 1-1,” Morris told Sports Headliners last weekend. “They dropped a road game at Nebraska. You want to make sure you take care of the two…home games here.”