MINNEAPOLIS — The best player on a Gophers men's basketball team with Sweet 16 aspirations was the fifth and final member of the 2015 recruiting class, an afterthought who didn't commit to the school until several weeks before high school graduation.
Jordan Murphy arrived at the U with low expectations as a three-star recruit, the fourth best of five freshmen to sign in Richard Pitino's second class, according to ESPN.
In ability and certainly in intrigue, Murphy figured to take a back seat in a class that included a Minnesotan and a four-star point guard.
"It was very intimidating just to be a part of," Murphy said. "I came in with a very talented class; granted, there are very few of us left today."
That promising 2015 class is down to two, Murphy and guard Nate Mason. The other three are gone because of wide-ranging issues: health, a desire for more playing time and a self-published sex tape.
All the while, Murphy has persisted — through an 8-23 season and in the face of scouts who once projected him as little more than a bench player, even as NBA scouts now take notice of the 6-foot-6, 250-pound star of a 14th-ranked Gophers team that is 8-2 after a surprising loss Tuesday, Dec. 5, at Nebraska.
Murphy is poised to become the best Gophers player in recent years, and already has emerged as an early candidate for National Player of the Year.
He has put up a double-double in all 10 games this season, the first Big Ten player to open the season like that in 17 years.
"Most guys going into their junior year with people talking about them maybe playing in the NBA one day, they're on the perimeter and jacking up shots," Pitino said. "But I think he's only shot two or three on the year. So he understands where his bread is buttered."
'A chip on our shoulder'
Murphy's freshman season ended with Mason and classmates Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer suspended the final four games following the sex-tape incident.
The Gophers lost all four of those games to put an ignominious end to a 8-23 season, the worst in program history.
Dorsey transferred. Mason and McBrayer had options to do the same.
After averaging 11.6 points and eight rebounds that season, Murphy could have had his choice of teams interested in him.
And yet he stayed. The decision wasn't difficult, he claimed.
"That year put a chip on our shoulder, and I didn't want to leave on a note that was going to be terrible," Murphy said. "I didn't want to only be remembered in Minnesota for the 8-23 season. That's not who I am. So I think sticking around was a good choice. ...
"I (went) through that season and know what it feels like to only have eight wins and know that we were one of the worst in college basketball two years ago. (I) know what it takes to come back from that, to have that chip on your shoulder and that desire to never go back to that."
In November 2015, as McBrayer and Dorsey were already Gophers commits, Murphy finally completed his recruitment process.
The San Antonio native wanted to leave his home state and make a name for himself, and at Virginia Commonwealth, he found a fit with coach Shaka Smart, the young Wisconsin native who had had taken VCU to a Final Four.
Murphy signed his national letter of intent to VCU, and was thrilled he wouldn't have to visit any more schools or hear from any more coaches.
The next spring, Smart left VCU for the University of Texas and all the resources of a big-time program located just 90 minutes north of Murphy's hometown.
Smart called Murphy to share the news.
And though the coach Murphy liked so much was now just up the road, he told Smart the same thing he told him when he was at VCU: Murphy wanted to leave Texas.
"I wanted to actually branch out," Murphy said. "I was in Texas my whole life. I love my home state and city, but it was time to move out and see what else was out there."
So he re-opened his recruitment at a time most programs had handed out all the scholarships they had.
Determined, Murphy played in a spring AAU tournament in Indiana. Pitino happened to be there.
"I remember following him around," Pitino said. "I said, 'OK there's something there.'"
Murphy visited Boston College, then Minnesota, with a visit scheduled for Indiana. But he cancelled his trip to Bloomington after spending a day in Dinkytown.
"Of all the visits I took — including to VCU — there was something (about Minnesota) that made me feel beyond comfortable," Murphy said. "I felt like I was already a part of the team."
'No one forgets that loss'
Murphy said he grew up watching the NCAA tournament with his father back home in Texas in a household where homework came before free time or watching basketball on TV.
They often told Murphy "the ball is going to stop bouncing" at some point and mandated a GPA higher than 3.0.
But with each game this season, it seems Murphy's ball still has plenty of bounce. His NBA chances grow, aided by his 12.8 rebounds per game, which are the second-most in college basketball.
"I'm hoping that one day I can make it to the NBA," Murphy said. "I just have to keep working hard and stay in the gym like I've been doing. Eventually if the plans align, I think it will happen. I just have to stay confident in myself and in my team. Winning as a team, I think, would get me there."
That means, in part, doing better than the Gophers' first-round NCAA tournament loss last spring, when they fell to No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee in the program's first Big Dance appearance in four years.
"I think that loss put a chip on our shoulder," Murphy said. "No one forgets that loss we had in the first round. We're reminded of it all the time. Guys remember that feeling and don't want to experience that ever again. It's in the back of your head."
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