After one of this fall’s first practices, Richard Pitino brought his team in for a huddle. The Minnesota basketball coach spoke to the players, and then an unfamiliar voice piped up.
“Family on three,” freshman Jordan Murphy said, cuing the team’s breakup chant.
“Normally, when you bring everybody together, a senior hops in,” Pitino said. “Well [Murphy] does it like 90 percent of the time. And he did it like his first practice. That is very, very rare.”
Murphy and three other freshmen represent a big part of the rebuilding Gophers’ core. But Minnesota, after losing four seniors and critical depth in the frontcourt from a year ago, will rely heavily on its future in the present, when the team plays the first of two exhibition games Sunday.
And while some of what the newcomers will be doing could be described as filling holes — both from positions and leaders lost — Pitino is also expecting, and needing, big things. Fast.
“We need an impact from that class right away,” the coach said. “They’re all going to have to be ready. I know this, after being in the Big Ten for two years: Ohio State does not care what our age is. Michigan State does not care. So we’ve got to be ready … there’s definitely a sense of urgency about that.”
Murphy, guards Kevin Dorsey, Dupree McBrayer and wing Ahmad Gilbert know it, a fact they mostly grin about. There is a palpable excitement about the chance to affect scores immediately, and they’re sure it will be in a positive way. Pressure seemed to float over the heads of the foursome on the team’s October media day.
“It’s like four brothers,” Gilbert said. “Before coming here, I thought I’d probably stay to myself because I don’t really like meeting new people. But we came together. We’re real close.”
Dorsey is the comedian of the group, McBrayer explained, a wide smile full of braces emerging: “Anything he sees, he’ll make a joke about it and it will end up being funny.”
The four hang out together every day, eating burgers, chicken fingers and cheese curds from Tony’s Diner — “They’re great!” McBrayer butted in, raving about his first taste of the Midwestern treat — and playing video games.
“I’m the champ,” Gilbert boasted, a point that was denied by his peers. “NBA 2K, Maddon and FIFA. But FIFA is my strong point.”
The four formed a quick friendship when the team journeyed to Spain in the offseason, they said, because of their similarities — their competitive nature and love for basketball — and because of their differences. McBrayer comes off as the most shy. Murphy seems the most serious and mature, physically. Dorsey has stories and anecdotes. And Gilbert might be the most blunt, saying whatever is on his mind.
Minnesota fans will see plenty of each on-court personality, with Murphy, a sturdy 6-6 forward with a long wingspan, and 5-11 Dorsey, a speedy attacker and defensive pest, most likely to compete for starting roles at some point. Dorsey will at the very least back up sophomore point guard Nate Mason, while Murphy could spell senior power forward Joey King and even step in at center when needed. McBrayer, 6-4, and 6-6 Gilbert, meanwhile, will help replace some of the shooting presence Minnesota lost after leading scorer Andre Hollins graduated this spring. Both have beautiful jump shots and good ballhandling skills, which McBrayer advertised in a smooth 13-point performance in last Sunday’s scrimmage.
At times, they might even all step into their roles at once. The freshmen lineup first hit the court in Spain.
Their worries, even then, about their youth and capability were as absent from their young minds as winter coats on a Barcelona beach.
“It was pretty exciting to all of us,” Murphy said of that moment. “All four of us looked at each other at one point and just started smiling.”