Jordan Murphy got used to taking on opposing frontcourts almost single-handedly last season once fellow big man Reggie Lynch was suspended for the final 16 games.
As a result, the All-Big Ten forward’s numbers declined from an All-America pace at the start. More help has arrived this season, though. The remade Gophers frontcourt takes the floor for the first time Thursday night, when Minnesota Duluth visits Williams Arena for the team’s lone exhibition game.
Murphy beamed earlier this fall just thinking about the frontcourt talent around him for his senior season, with freshman Daniel Oturu, redshirt sophomore Eric Curry and others. Now that Curry will need to spend the next four to six weeks recovering from a recent surgery on his repaired left knee, Oturu likely will get the first chance to start alongside Murphy down low.
“He’s a very talented kid in the post,” Murphy said of Oturu. “Definitely skilled, definitely can step out if he wants to in the midrange area. Very underrated shot blocker. I did not know he was that good as a shot-blocker coming in, so he definitely has some versatile skills. Great two-way player. I’m looking forward to seeing how he grows this season.”
Through the first 12 games last year, Murphy was leading the Big Ten in points (20.2) and rebounds (13). His 17 straight double-doubles made for the longest NCAA streak since Tim Duncan at Wake Forest in 1996-97.
But in Murphy’s last 15 games, with Lynch gone, his averages slid to 15.2 points and 9.7 rebounds against defenses focused on limiting his impact.
Curry played 20 minutes as a backup post on the Gophers’ NCAA tournament team in 2016-17, so he would’ve replaced Lynch last season if not for his injured knee. Even as Curry remains sidelined for at least a month, the Gophers have better options at center than last season.
Senior Matz Stockman, a 7-footer from Norway, played sparingly at Louisville in three years before transferring, but he displayed some promise with a 17-point performance in Sunday’s Maroon and Gold scrimmage. Oturu showed no signs of rust, coming off reconstructive shoulder surgery in April, with four blocks and four dunks in the scrimmage.
Since being fully cleared in early October, the 6-10 Cretin-Derham Hall product has impressed teammates and coaches in practice.
“He’s really talented,” coach Richard Pitino said. “He’s one of the highest-rated recruits Minnesota has ever gotten. To get him in-state, somehow some people forget about him. If he goes on the trajectory he needs to, he could play at the next level. You never know with that, but I really like what I’ve seen from him so far.”
Other players who could be in the new rotation inside will be explosive freshman Jarvis Omersa and junior Michael Hurt, who also has three-point range.
“We’re all able to play more versatile basketball,” Oturu said. “Not to knock the bigs from last year or anything like that — they were good players — but I feel like we bring a lot more to the table with the type of team we have this year.”
That depth gives Murphy’s teammates hope he can put together a full season this year.
“Murph’s one of the best players in the country,” Oturu said. “It’s kind of crazy I see all these lists with top players returning and he’s not even in the top 20. Dude averaged a double-double last year.”
Murphy wants to prove not only that he belongs among the nation’s elite, but that Minnesota’s frontcourt deserves more recognition as well.
“All these guys are really talented and really smart,” Murphy said. “They have no problem jelling and meshing with the rest of the team. I really think highly of these guys and how talented they are as far as the frontcourt goes. They’re working hard. They just have to continue to listen to coaching and work hard.”