Jim Souhan
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What might have been lost during Amir Coffey’s stirring offensive performances in victories over Nebraska and Wisconsin was that Coffey’s dominance had little to do with offensive flow.

In both games, Coffey started slowly and began slicing through defenses when it became clear that the Gophers weren’t going to do much without him. His ability to tuck the ball and run through defenders even helped Minnesota win its second tackle football game in Madison in the past two months.

Tuesday night, the Gophers played the kind of game that will define their season — at home, against one of the many good Big Ten teams with which they will be competing for an NCAA tournament berth.

Maryland is talented, but the Terrapins should not have been able to win by 15 points at Williams Arena. That’s what they did, pulling away in the second half for an 82-67 victory after trailing 40-34 at the half.

This was not an artistic showing from the home team. While 67 points isn’t a terrible total by modern Big Ten standings, the Gophers offense never looked cohesive.

Gophers coach Richard Pitino noted, rightly, that the Gophers made only nine of their 23 free throws.

He also noted that Maryland has an incredibly big front line, which made inside shots treacherous. Right again.

He was also right when he noted the Gophers had won six in a row, are 12-3 and 2-2 in the conference. Pitino’s intimation: This remains an impressive-to-date team and a still-promising season.

But there is something missing. Last year, Jordan Murphy grew into a star while adding nuances to his offensive game. The logical assumption was that a player of his work ethic would show up for his senior year with even more tricks.

Instead, Murphy has, in the past two games, looked lost. Against Maryland’s height and zone defense and while dealing with foul trouble, maybe a nine-point, four-assist, five-rebound game should not be dismissed as beneath his abilities.

But Murphy also struggled at Wisconsin, finishing with only five points before fouling out, having played 29 minutes.

Last year, Murphy averaged 16.8 points and earned many of them driving into the teeth of defenses. This year, Murphy is averaging about 2.5 points fewer, with a bunch of games against tall and physical Big Ten defenses looming.

“That’s a really, really talented frontcourt,” Pitino said of Maryland. “We’ll see where we can make some adjustments. … And [Murphy] was in foul trouble. Better in the second half.”

On one possession Tuesday, Murphy caught a pass in the low post. He was alone, yet waited until two Maryland players crashed toward him before making a move. He missed the shot.

He was facing two 6-10 interior players in Jalen Smith and Bruno Fernando. Of course, in the Big Ten, they aren’t the only talented big men he’ll have to navigate.

“Obviously, they’re very talented big men,” Murphy said. “Bruno’s a load down there, and Jalen is a very talented player himself. They put us in a couple of binds. We didn’t handle the last few minutes of the game the way we should have.”

Perhaps the key stat of the game for Murphy: He took only six shots for the second consecutive game. The Gophers need to squash that trend.

“I’ve just got to find it in the flow of the offense,” Murphy said. “I’ve had a few stretches in games where I’m not taking enough shots, where I’m not being aggressive enough in the flow of the offense. I’ve got to regroup a little bit.”

The Gophers play Rutgers, Illinois and Penn State in the next three games. With a productive Murphy, they could be 15-3 and 5-2 in the Big Ten when they play at No. 2 Michigan on Jan. 22.

Given the quality of the Big Ten, the Gophers will have to beat a number of good teams to make it to the tournament. They’ll need Murphy at his best to do that.

Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com