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Can Nate Mason lead a deep NCAA Tournament run for Minnesota in 2017-18?

Minnesota hasn’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 1997, but Mason could finally get the Golden Gophers there this year.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long time since Minnesota played meaningful basketball deep into March — besides the NIT. It’s been 20 years to be exact. And that season was vacated by the NCAA so technically it’s been since 1990 that Minnesota reached the Sweet 16.

Here’s a little something to put that into context: 10 Big Ten teams have reached the Sweet 16 since Minnesota last did so. The only ones who haven’t are Rutgers, Nebraska and Northwestern. That’s not a class the Golden Gophers want to be apart of.

But this long NCAA tournament slump could be coming to an end soon, as in this upcoming season. Minnesota returns almost all of last year’s team — only losing one key contributor in Akeem Springs — and part of those returning is star senior guard Nate Mason. If Minnesota is going to end this NCAA Tournament drought then Mason is the man to lead the way.

This past year as a junior Mason did it all for the Golden Gophers. Mason led Minnesota in scoring (15.2 points per game), assists (five assists per game), steals (1.3 steals per game) and minutes (34.5 minutes per game). He was the key factor in the team’s success and offered the ability to drive to the rim or hit an open three at any point of the game. There’s a reason why he was selected by both the coaches and media for All-Big Ten First Team.

As I mentioned before, Minnesota returns a lot of key parts for next year’s team. Six of the team’s top seven scorers return, including sophomore guard Amir Coffey, junior forward Jordan Murphy and junior guard Dupree McBrayer — all of which averaged above 10 points per game last year. Then you throw in 2017 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch to help protect the rim and you have one solid core of talent.

However, it still all runs through Mason. He runs the point and has the ball in his hands the most, and will be the one the Golden Gophers depend on to take that next step.

Last year when Mason didn’t reach double digits in points Minnesota was 1-3 in 2016-17. Obviously this didn’t happen often but when it did the Golden Gophers struggled. This includes a lackluster performance against Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — a 2-for-10 shooting act for only five points and three assists. And we know how that game ended for Minnesota.

On the contrary, when he is on so are the Gophers. Anytime Mason scored 15 or more points the Golden Gophers were 10-4 this past season, and whenever he had seven or more assists Minnesota was 12-1. There were some crossover performances where he hit both 15 points and seven assists but ultimately if he’s having a positive impact on the offense Minnesota is going to win. Or at least the odds are greatly increased.

So going back to what I said off the bat, if Minnesota is going to finally take that next step in the tournament Mason will be the one leading the way.

It really is astonishing that Minnesota hasn’t made it to the Sweet 16 since 1997. Well 1990 if you want to be politically correct. They’ve made the NCAA Tournament six times since then and you’d think they’d at least pull off a few upsets to make it into the second weekend.

While they haven’t been lucky enough to make it there recently, it won’t take much luck next year for it to happen. The Golden Gophers will feature a loaded roster next season and Mason is at the forefront of that. But if Minnesota can overcome its recent NCAA Tournament failures it’ll be because of him. And if he improves off what he accomplished last year then Golden Gopher fans better be ready for a deeper run into March.