Providence had a plethora of big men to throw at the Gophers on Monday, but none of them could stop Jordan Murphy and his new go-to move: a hard dribble drive to the rim, finishing with a spinning layup.
“He just made some unbelievable moves,” coach Richard Pitino said of his co-captain. “He made some moves where last year they don’t go in. Well, this year he’s got that nice little touch on the spin. It’s no secret magical formula. Just put in the work.”
Murphy’s career-best 35-point, 15-rebound effort in the opener against South Carolina Upstate wasn’t a fluke. He followed that up with 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in a convincing 86-74 win Monday at Providence.
The 14th-ranked Gophers (2-0) will begin a three-game homestand Wednesday against Niagara (1-0) with a junior forward playing like one of the most unstoppable low-post scorers in college basketball.
Murphy’s not very big. He’s 6-6 — or 6-7, if you go by how tall he says he is (the big frizzy hair helps) — but with a powerfully built 250-pound frame, a 7-foot wingspan and quick leaping ability. He plays much bigger than the roster size suggests.
Pitino said Murphy reminds him of former Providence star Ryan Gomes, an undersized power forward and All-American when Pitino was on the Friars staff.
Murphy isn’t familiar with Gomes, who played in college more than a decade ago and is no longer in the NBA. But Pitino pulled up some game video for Murphy to watch.
“He has aspirations of playing in the NBA one day,” Pitino said. “He’s certainly a guy where it’s not just going to be about rebounding anymore. We need him to score the ball in the half-court. He’s a viable option.”
In his first two seasons, Murphy never scored 20 points in consecutive games, but he’s the first Gopher with back-to-back 20-point, 10-rebound efforts since Kris Humphries in 2004.
A year ago, the San Antonio native started the season slowly, averaging eight points, eight rebounds and shooting 31.3 percent from the field in his first two games. Through two games this season, Murphy is leading the Big Ten in scoring (29.0) and rebounding (14.5), while shooting 62.2 percent from the floor.
The Gophers didn’t run plays for Murphy last season. They played through big men Reggie Lynch and Eric Curry in the post. And that left Murphy to try finding other ways to contribute offensively.
At first he tried handling the ball more and taking jump shots. That didn’t work, and he had seven straight games scoring under double figures in the Big Ten.
Murphy eventually went back to where Pitino says “his bread is buttered.”
Crashing the offensive boards, running the floor and dunking every chance he gets is what Murphy did well to finish last season, becoming an All-Big Ten performer averaging 15 points and 11 rebounds his last 11 games.
He still dominates in that fashion, but he’s added moves like his dribble-drive and spin. He’s still waiting to show off an improved outside shot.
“I’ve been working a lot of late nights in the gym,” Murphy said.
“Just trying to get my game right. That’s where my mind-set is. Just trying to get better every day. But I have to make sure I still focus on rebounding. I need to, because once I get that down, everything starts rolling.”
Murphy’s teammates will keep feeding him the ball until someone slows him down. The waiting for that moment continues Wednesday.
“I told him he needs to be the best player on the court,” senior point guard Nate Mason said. “And I need him to keep going. He’s a key to our success.”
Gophers men’s basketball 7 p.m. Wednesday vs. Niagara (BTN Plus)