Richard Pitino sat behind his desk, ready to listen to what his talented freshman forward had to say. He hoped the conversation wouldn’t involve transferring from the University of Minnesota basketball program, but how could Pitino blame Jordan Murphy if the young man wanted out?
The San Antonio native had been homesick for the entire 2015-16 season. The Gophers had just finished their worst season in school history with an 8-23 record. Three players were suspended in early 2015 for a sex video scandal; Murphy wasn’t involved, but his parents were alarmed.
Sitting across from Pitino on a March afternoon, Murphy could have told his coach he was fed up, that he wanted a release from his scholarship to pursue opportunities elsewhere, like many transfers do each year.
Instead, the conversation went in a different direction. It was a conversation about redemption.
“For us, as a family, we encouraged him to stick it out,” said Murphy’s mother, Celia. “But at the end of the day, he said, ‘Mom, I’m a Gopher. I came here to do something and I’m going to do it.’ ”
With his third Big Ten season starting Sunday, Murphy knows he made the right decision. Not only is he a second-year captain and returning All-Big Ten junior forward, but he has become a walking double-double on an All-America pace.
“That conversation I had was really refreshing,” Murphy said, reflecting back to 2015. “It really reinforced the values that it’s good to stay where you’re at, rough it out and not abandon ship.”
Motor high, motor low
The first glimpses of Murphy’s raw athletic talent came during a trip to Spain before the 2015-16 season. In the opening game against a club team from Barcelona, the 6-foot-6 Murphy drove the lane, took off from just inside the free-throw line and hammered down a dunk over a defender.
“That was the first game and everyone was like, ‘Whoa!’ ” said Stephon Sharp, Murphy’s former teammate and roommate. “You’d see the flashes when he was younger, but it was more about putting it together. There were a couple issues with energy and playing solid on both sides of the ball.”
There was no question Murphy was the Gophers’ most athletic frontcourt player as a freshman. He played behind senior forward Joey King for the first 11 games but led the team in highlights. Yet Pitino didn’t trust Murphy to bring consistent effort. The nickname “Low-Motor, High-Motor Murph” was born.
Murphy’s first double-figure outing came in his sixth game, an eye-opening 24-point, 10-rebound night against Clemson. He recorded his third straight double-double in his first start, against Milwaukee, but that was the beginning of a 14-game losing streak that went from two days before Christmas until mid-February.
Murphy finished his first season with the two dreadful games — scoring seven points on 3-for-21 shooting in a 25-point loss at Rutgers, and nine points on 3-for-14 shooting in a 33-point Big Ten tournament loss to Illinois.
He looked like he had mentally packed his bags.
“Believe it or not, he had doubts he was supposed to be there,” said Murphy’s father, Bernard. “I told him everything you gained during your freshman year would be lost if you had to sit out a year. The more he thought about it, he said, ‘You know, you’re right, Dad.’ He looked at the team he was going to have coming in, and he said, ‘I think we can do something next year.’ And they did.”
Big Ten’s best?
Every season, a player emerges from under the radar to become one of the top players in college basketball. That Murphy is making his case to be that player this year is especially surprising considering he started the season in the shadow of his own teammates.
Murphy took a backseat to All-Big Ten point guard Nate Mason, conference defensive player of the year Reggie Lynch and all-league freshman Amir Coffey.
Murphy earned all-conference third-team honors last season, basically for a seven-game stretch in which he averaged nearly 18 points and 14 rebounds. Minnesota went unbeaten in those games, solidifying its NCAA tournament positioning and discarding a five-game losing streak.
This fall, his goals were more team-oriented. Murphy and his teammates are eyeing a Big Ten title. As preseason practices ended, Murphy was not imagining that his name would come up in early conversations about Big Ten and even national player of the year awards. But then the games started.
Murphy made quite the statement in the Gophers’ opener, a 35-point, 15-rebound monster against South Carolina Upstate. The high-scoring double-doubles have come every night since, and he leads Big Ten players in both scoring (21.3 points per game) and rebounding (12.5). His eight straight double-doubles going into Sunday’s game against Rutgers is the longest streak for a Big Ten player since Iowa’s Reggie Evans in 2000.
“I never really envisioned I would be quite this successful this early,” Murphy said. “It’s just my mentality not focusing on scoring or touches or anything like that. It’s more focused on rebounding and just trying to contribute wherever I can to a win, honestly.”
Murphy’s a model student who has never earned below a 3.0 grade-point average (his parents won’t allow it). He’s on schedule to get a communications degree next winter.
He also has been Pitino’s most improved player each season. He has added 20 pounds of muscle to his now 250-pound frame since his freshman season, including 10 this summer. He added a midrange jumper, a hook and a spin-dribble drive to his offensive arsenal.
During a six-game stretch of single-digit scoring last season, Murphy would go back to his dorm and watch game video of himself. He noticed his head was often down, giving off poor body language. Now he plays with his head up, with consistent energy.
He no longer gets called Low-Motor Murph.
“It’s just a confidence level,” Pitino said. “You got guys in the locker room who went through a very difficult season [in 2015] and didn’t run and hide. They didn’t transfer. They stuck with it. As challenging as that is for anybody, it’s good for everybody. I just think Jordan is in a good place emotionally right now.”
For the second straight summer, Murphy stayed in Minnesota and became a gym rat. He never missed a workout, weightlifting session or practice. He played in every game at the local Twin Cities Pro-Am, which included holding his own against Timberwolves center Cole Aldrich and former Gopher Trevor Mbakwe.
“I could tell he was locked in and focused this summer,” Mbakwe said. “You could definitely tell this summer he had that killer mind-set, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s playing at this level right now.”
The player who once contemplated transferring is now fully committed and powering Minnesota’s high Big Ten expectations.
“It helped me grow as a person and as a player,” Murphy said. “That really helped me grow, that gym-rat and stay-in-the-gym mentality that you need to have in order to be successful.”