Gophers unlock Jordan Murphy’s beast mode
MINNEAPOLIS -- Richard Pitino and Jordan Murphy had the same conversation two years ago, but there was the Gophers men’s basketball coach imploring his star forward to not focus on his post moves Saturday.
Murphy had been limited to four points and four rebounds, with two turnovers, as the Gophers trailed Penn State 38-30 at halftime at Williams Arena.
“Stop worrying about that,” Pitino said Monday, Jan. 21, of what he told Murphy. “You’re getting frustrated. (They’re) slapping the ball out of your hands and converging on you. They’re going to do that. You’re going to draw a lot of attention.”
Pitino wanted Murphy’s attention on rebounding and distributing when double teams arrived. “When you have the right mindset, you’re a beast,” Pitino said.
Refocused, Murphy had 15 points, 16 rebounds and no turnovers in the second half of a 65-64 comeback victory over the Nittany Lions, who remained winless in the Big Ten. After an ugly loss at Illinois on Wednesday, Murphy helped bring the Gophers back from the brink of what could have been a crippling loss to the U’s NCAA tournament hopes.
“I was too much in my head in the first half and the traps were affecting me,” Murphy said Saturday. “I was letting it get to me. He told me to keep my mind on rebounding and just getting stops, and everything else would fall and roll, so that’s what I did.”
Among his career-high-tying 21 rebounds Saturday, no rebound was bigger than his put-back dunk that gave Minnesota a 64-61 lead with a minute remaining. It gave him 19 points on the evening.
“It was just sheer will, heart, toughness,” Pitino said. “He has always had a really good second bounce, and that was a phenomenal play. It was just one of those, ‘I’m going to make this happen somehow, some way.’ ”
Murphy will need to remain on that higher level when Minnesota (14-3, 4-3 Big Ten) faces Big Ten titan No. 5 Michigan (17-1, 6-1) at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in scoring defense (57.1 points per game), which is an improvement over the conference-best 63.3 allowed when they advanced to the NCAA championship game a year ago.
Michigan was No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency, en route to magical postseason run in 2018, and the Wolverines are No. 3 again this year, per analytics site kenpom.com.
“They’ve got really good lateral quickness and personnel,” Pitino said. “They guard ball screens very, very well, and they play kind of four guards, so they can switch a lot of things. I think their personnel is really, really tailor made for it.”
Michigan was the nation’s last undefeated team until unranked Wisconsin gave the Wolverines their first loss, 64-54, in Madison on Saturday. The Wolverines were third in the nation in turnovers per game (9.5) entering Saturday and had a season-high-tying 16 against the Badgers.
“It’s hard to win at Wisconsin — not a lot of teams do it,” Pitino said in a pat on his own back for the Gophers’ 59-52 win over the Badgers at Kohl Center three weeks ago.
However, any upset of the Wolverines, who are 12-0 at home this season, will mean Murphy must replicate his form in the second half against Penn State and not need any reminders from his coach.