Jordan Murphy’s height on the official roster is listed at 6-7. In reality, the Gophers power forward is likely an inch or two shorter than that.
Too bad they can’t measure the size of his heart. Nobody on the court would top him in that category.
Murphy’s wonderful career can be summed up thusly: Undersized but never outworked. And so it was again Saturday at the Barn in the closest thing to a must-win game for a slumping Gophers team.
Desperate to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive after losing four in a row, the Gophers chose a familiar script. They turned to Murphy for inspiration, production and relentless effort. And he delivered on all accounts, as usual.
Murphy scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the first half as the Gophers exposed a stunning lack of urgency and competitive fight by the Indiana Hoosiers in an 84-63 win at Williams Arena.
It was a vintage Murphy performance. He was fearless in taking on taller defenders and crafty with his post moves. His brute strength set a physical tone that energized his entire team. He was the toughest player on the floor.
“He’s an understated kid so he probably doesn’t get the respect that he deserves,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said.
Gophers fans should take time to savor the twilight of Murphy’s career. He will be remembered — or should be, at least — among the program’s all-time greats. He has a legitimate shot to finish second in school history in scoring, and he already ranks second in Big Ten history in rebounds.
His approach provides the wow factor to his legacy.
Murphy is undersized in every matchup in terms of height, often by 4 or 5 inches. A post player his size should get swallowed up. Not him.
Murphy uses his lower-body strength to establish position, taking root like a tree. He backs his way inside until he sees his opening, then explodes to the basket. Murphy has 159 dunks in his career, including one Saturday that Pitino said went underappreciated.
“He had a drop-step dunk and everybody [the fans] just kind of sat there,” Pitino said. “I’m like, do you realize how hard that is to do? It was amazing what he did.”
Nothing intimidates Murphy. If he gets his shot blocked, so what. He will fight for the rebound and try again. Opposing big men know they are in for a scrap when they face him.
“He’s got unbelievable hands and strength,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “For his size, to be able to do what he’s able to do in this league, he can ward you off. Physically, I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy that strong who is able to hold ground and do what he wants to do.”
There is a throwback component to Murphy’s game. He likely won’t play in the NBA because of his size and his shooting range. He has certain limitations but he also understands and maximizes his strengths. He’s terrific at what he does best.
“A lot of basketball players have identity crisis,” Pitino said. “He does not. He knows what he’s good at and he sticks to it.”
The school didn’t make Murphy available for interviews after the game, but his assertiveness in the first half allowed the Gophers to exhale and relax.
The Hoosiers showed brief life in cutting the deficit to 30-25 late in the first half. Murphy put an end to that. He had a three-point play and a dunk to push the lead to double digits. The Gophers maintained a comfortable lead the rest of the way.
Murphy added 11 rebounds with his 23 points to give him a 10th double-double in 15 Big Ten games. The Gophers could use a few more of those down the stretch to secure a tournament bid.
Saturday’s game carried a win-or-bust feel to it. The Gophers’ margin for error had just about vanished. Their best player responded like one would expect. Jordan Murphy doesn’t back down from a challenge.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org