Jordan Murphy let out a sigh and dropped his head.
Everyone at Williams Arena knew what that whistle meant — that the freshman spark plug for the Gophers would have to take a seat and stay there for most of the first half. Again.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, while the two fouls Murphy acquired with 16:33 left in the first half of an eventual 76-71 loss to Illinois were the worst example in a Big Ten full of troubles, they were hardly an outlier.
Throughout a season marked by team-wide struggles, Murphy’s foul trouble early in games might be among the most concerning heading into Wednesday’s game against Purdue, perhaps the Gophers most physical opponent yet.
“It’s frustrating,” Murphy said. “It’s just stupid fouls honestly. Stuff that is not even needed.”
Murphy is widely recognized as the Gophers’ best offensive weapon and only natural rebounder, so understandably he’s played a huge role on a youthful, transitioning team. But quick foul trouble has been a problem in every Big Ten game but one this year for the 6-6 forward.
Three games ago, against Indiana at home, Murphy managed to stay foul-free for the 36 minutes he was in the game, a first in his young career at Minnesota. Since then, though, the freshman has returned to his maddeningly consistent habit of missing at most of the final six-plus minutes before halftime.
In the seven other league games the Gophers have played, Murphy has collected two fouls by at least the 6:28 mark. Four times, he’s left the game with 9:54 or more left in the first.
Pitino, like most college basketball coaches, operates by the strict policy of yanking a player once they receive their second foul before the break. But with the team’s only reliable post scorer and rebounder absent, the result often has been an abrupt halt in the team’s energy and momentum.
The coach occasionally has allowed Murphy to play spot minutes, especially on offensive possessions, in the aftermath, but the standout’s court time still shrinks dramatically.
“It’s a problem,” Pitino said. “His first two [fouls against Illinois] were so unnecessary, and it puts him on the bench. We need him to be in the game, we need him to play a lot of minutes because he’s extremely efficient when he’s out there.”
After Murphy sat out the last 6:42 of the Gophers’ conference-opening loss at Ohio State — then a pesky trend that foreshadowed a more pervasive issue — Pitino admitted he was “tempted” to put his forward back in but said that he was worried about losing him at the end of the game instead.
“He just keeps fouling,” Pitino said then. “He’s got to sustain it a little better than he’s doing.”
On Tuesday, the coach said that the biggest transition for Murphy is learning the balance between playing tough defense and avoiding fouls. Pitino coaches with a whistle around his neck during practice, calling plenty of fouls on Murphy then, too.
“Sometimes he’ll play bad defense and he’ll say, ‘Well, I didn’t want to foul,’ ” Pitino said. “I tell him ‘Well … you don’t have to foul to play defense.’ So I think he’s figuring that out.”
Despite all the early whistles, Murphy has fouled out in just two games. But part of that probably has to do with the fact that the fouls called seem to detract from his aggressiveness, even after the start of the second half. That’s likely been one of the factors in Murphy’s dip in production in Big Ten play, besides a spike in the level of the competition and increased scouting.
In conference games, he’s averaged 9.3 points and 7.3 rebounds after putting up 14.6 points and 11.3 rebounds in the seven games before.
“[I need to] just slow down,” Murphy said. “Sometimes I get too caught up in the heat of things and I just foul. I don’t know what it is. It just happens with being young and playing too fast.”