The largest player in Big Ten basketball is Purdue’s Isaac Haas. He stands 7-2 and weighs nearly 300 pounds.
A player more than 50 pounds lighter and more than a half-foot shorter, however, has left an extra-large impression over the years on the Big Ten’s biggest body.
“Jordan Murphy is a big-bodied guy, even though he doesn’t quite look like it,” Haas recalled at Big Ten Media Day earlier this month in New York. “He’s very strong and very bouncy. I think it makes him a very elite player.”
There was a stretch last season, though, when the 6-6, 240-pound Murphy looked far from one of the Big Ten’s elite players. He scored under double figures in six consecutive games and was a nonfactor during some close losses for the Gophers.
But his resurgence to finish conference play helped his team go on an eight-game winning streak and earn him All-Big Ten third-team honors. Murphy’s improved offensive game, along with his usual rebounding prowess, makes him a potential go-to option for coach Richard Pitino this season. Murphy will be a third-year starter when his junior season opens unofficially with Thursday night’s exhibition game vs. Concordia (St. Paul).
The Gophers will take the floor a day after being ranked the No. 15 team in the country by the Associated Press — their highest preseason ranking in 24 years.
If Murphy puts together a consistent, improved season, he could emerge as one of the top power forwards in the country. The San Antonio native was named to the preseason watch list for the Karl Malone Award, given to the nation’s top power forward.
One stat that says it all about Murphy’s importance: Minnesota was 11-0 when he scored 14 points or more in league play last season. Murphy averaged 15.1 points and 11.9 rebounds in his last 11 games his sophomore year.
“What I try to pass on to [teammates], is that you’ve got to keep working hard and stay in the gym,” Murphy said in New York. “As you start to mature, you start to understand the game more, you start to gain more knowledge from your coaches and read scouting reports more. You understand the role that you’re going to be in. Through all that hard work — that’s what got me to this point.”
Senior center Reggie Lynch, last season’s Big Ten defensive player of the year, returns with Murphy to give the Gophers one of the best frontcourt tandems in the conference.
But there isn’t much proven depth behind Murphy at power forward, especially with the season-ending knee injury to sophomore Eric Curry. Murphy has pushed to improve his all-around game, even adding a three-point shot.
“I’ve shown Coach that I can have more offensive responsibility, as well as defense responsibility,” Murphy said. “[Three-point shooting] really stretches the floor and gives me a lot more options to drive. I’ve been working on my jump shot a lot. It’s not necessarily a go-to for me, but it’s something in my back pocket I can keep just in case.”
Pitino said last season that Murphy was not a good scorer, so they rarely ran plays to get him the ball. Expect the opposite this season.
“He looks really good right now,” Pitino said. “He’s getting better. I said that [he was not good offensively] last year, and I remember reading it and not liking how that looks.
“My point was he wasn’t a natural scorer at the time. I think he’s starting to become that. It’s not as much from just rebounds and dunks. Now we’re getting pretty comfortable throwing it in there, with him driving to the basket [and shooting outside]. He’s evolving into that.”