Jan. 14—These are uncharted waters for the Madsen twins.
Gabe and Mason Madsen have been together since birth. Where one went, the other joined him. That held true for almost the entirety of their basketball careers too. The Madsens can count the number of times they weren't on the same team on one hand.
They've added another finger to that count this year. For the first time at the competitive level, Gabe and Mason are no longer teammates. While they both began their college careers at Cincinnati, they're now separated by more than 1,600 miles. Gabe transferred to Utah this season, splitting the twins up on the basketball court for the first time in their lives.
"He's been my best friend my whole life," Gabe said. "So just learning to live with that part of it, off the court having that guy that's been there your whole life, that's definitely been the weirdest part."
The twins, who were born in Eau Claire and began their careers at Bloomer High School before moving to Minnesota, have always seemed like a package deal. They immediately became two of the area's best players as freshmen for the Blackhawks, and continued to star for the next three years at Rochester Mayo in Rochester, Minn. When it came time to pick their next destination, both settled on Cincinnati.
At the college level, though, things weren't so smooth. Gabe opted out of his freshman season in December of 2020. He cited the pandemic's effect on the day-to-day life of a basketball player making it difficult for him to find enjoyment on a daily basis. He returned home, while Mason continued to play for the Bearcats.
That spelled the end of their time together at Cincinnati. After a road trip out west, Gabe announced he was transferring to Utah in April. Although Mason also briefly entered the transfer portal, he ultimately opted to stay put.
But even though they would no longer be calling the same place home, the twins both agreed: The transition has been well worth it.
"As long as he's happy, that's the thing I want the most," Mason said. "Because I've seen him when he's not happy, and it hurts to see that with someone that you're so close with. So the fact that he's found a place that's really good for him and I've found a place that's really good for me, I think it's beneficial for both of us."
Both are role players for their respective teams. Mason averages just under 13 minutes per game for the Bearcats, while Gabe plays 11.5 minutes per game for the Utes.
For Gabe's part, he's back to enjoying the daily grind of college basketball again. He feels at home in Salt Lake City, particularly thanks to his affinity for the outdoors.
"Looking back on my year I've had, sometimes you've just got to do what's best for you," he said. "When I left Cincinnati, in the moment it felt like some people were questioning why I would do that or if it was a mistake or things like that. But sometimes you've just got to follow what you feel like is best for you, and I did that and took care of myself. It ended up being the best decision I ever made."
And Mason's decision to stay at Cincinnati is paying off too. After coach John Brannen was fired following last season, Mason began to look for options elsewhere. But upon conversations with new coach Wes Miller, he opted to remain where he was and push on with the Bearcats.
He knew at the time that it would officially bring an end to the twins-as-teammates era, but they had both come to terms with it already.
"It's kind of a leap of faith, because we've played together our whole lives," Mason said. "We just had to trust that things would go on. There's plenty of opportunity when you're apart, too."
With separation has come growth this year. While they miss being together and have stayed in daily contact with each other, there has been something refreshing about starting a new chapter for each of the Madsens.
"Everybody has to (go off on their own) at some point in their life," Gabe said. "It's been kind of nice to go apart and really find out who you are. Speaking for myself, I definitely became more vocal. I used to be more of a quiet guy, but going on my own, I definitely became more vocal, more outgoing."
Mason has seen changes too.
"I think when you're put in uncomfortable situations, you tend to see more growth," Mason said. "This is just one of those. Obviously we're probably more comfortable together because you always have that person to lean on, but I feel like I've changed more without him here, and he probably feels the same way.
"When you have someone that you've been with your whole life and see them start to change, I think you question it a little — even though changing as you grow older is normal. So I feel like that's probably sped up that process for both of us, finally being apart. We can kind of grow into who we are as we get older."
The twins have also escaped the inevitable comparisons that came with playing together their entire lives. Now that they're on their own, they don't feel pressured to outdo each other. Each player is free to play without that concern, which has been liberating to some degree.
"The thing for the both of us is we've always been compared," Mason said. "It's just hard. I don't think people realize how hard that is to be compared to someone like that your whole life. And obviously hard is relative. There are harder things in the world than being compared about who's better at basketball. But it's something that does take its toll. So I think that's been the refreshing part about not playing together."
The twins never played a game together in college, because Mason was recovering from an injury while Gabe was playing and didn't return before he opted out. Their last time sharing the court in live game action came in high school.
They didn't know it was their finale at the time. But as they've seen over the last year, things have worked out just fine regardless.
"Part of me will probably always wonder, 'What if we did play together?'" Mason said. "Just because we never even got the opportunity. I always think back to high school, we didn't even know it was our last game because COVID canceled the season. Then we figured we'd play together in college, and it never happened. But I think obviously there's good that comes from this too."