During an 8-23 season two years ago, Richard Pitino saw the Gophers men’s basketball team collapsing and decided to make a change to a smaller lineup for a different look.
Pitino put 6-7 forward Jordan Murphy in the middle.
The losses continued to pile up, but Murphy played well in a new role for a few games and earned All-Big Ten freshman honors in 2015-16.
Murphy is a few inches shorter than most Big Ten centers, but he is powerful enough to hold his own physically. He can use his length and leaping ability to score and rebound undersized.
The Gophers are slumping now a lot like two seasons ago heading into Tuesday’s game at Iowa. They have lost six of seven with no answer at center without the suspended Reggie Lynch.
Murphy playing center again is the latest tweak to a starting lineup that has changed eight times this season. Small ball appears to be Pitino’s last hope to turn things around shorthanded.
“You’ve got to tinker and see what works,” Pitino said. “Anytime you play a smaller lineup, you’re going to give up something. You may get something, but you’re going to decide to give up something. I think it’s game by game just being able to, with practice, get guys to run the offense at different positions.”
At 250 pounds, Murphy is 20 pounds heavier than his freshman year. But he remembers having success in the short time he was the man in the middle. He recorded 12 points and 10 rebounds in his first game as a starting center, a 76-71 overtime home loss to Illinois on Jan. 23, 2016.
Playing alongside Murphy in the frontcourt then was 6-9 senior Joey King, who was primarily a shooter. The Gophers tied a school record that night for three-point attempts, going 11-for-36 from beyond the arc. They got trigger-happy vs. the Illini’s zone defense and didn’t get the ball to Murphy enough.
But in three games playing center, Murphy averaged 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds and shot 55 percent from the field, which included a 22-point, 10-rebound performance in a loss at Illinois.
“It’s something I haven’t really done since my freshman year,” Murphy said last week. “It’s something I kind of have to look back on and remember what got me so successful at it.”
Nebraska and Indiana are teams that have been competitive in the Big Ten this season playing with smaller lineups because of injuries.
Pitino started Murphy at center and 6-8 junior Davonte Fitzgerald at power forward in last Tuesday’s 77-69 home loss to Northwestern. Murphy, who averages 17.6 points and 11.7 rebounds, finished with 10 points and nine rebounds. Fitzgerald had just three points and one rebound. So that frontcourt is still a work in progress.
“As a stretch four, I’m trying to give him that space to dominate down low,” Fitzgerald said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we go with that look moving forward.”
Fitzgerald, who has recovered from two major knee injuries, said he is naturally a small forward, but he thinks he can use his athleticism to be more active in the paint to help Murphy.
Another way Pitino can help Murphy is to get him the ball more on the block.
“Going small isn’t always the lock answer,” Pitino said. “More than anything, he’s got to get touches. But a lot goes into that. Posting up deep. Ball-faking and doing the right things as well.”