Jordan Murphy traces back his path to becoming one of the best rebounders in Big Ten history to a meeting in coach Richard Pitino’s office during his sophomore year. Focus on rebounding, he was told. Own the boards and everything else would come easier.
“That really got me in line and got my mind right,” said Murphy, who enters the Gophers’ game Tuesday at No. 5 Michigan with 1,128 rebounds, most among active Division I players and No. 3 in Big Ten history.
Murphy and Pitino had a much shorter but very similar talk Saturday. In the Gophers’ first six Big Ten games, the San Antonio native averaged just 10.8 points and 8.8 rebounds, down from 17.9 and 13.1 in 11 nonconference games. Bigger players and more physical play — opponents have been hacking and slapping away at Murphy — had led to frustration.
Murphy wanted the ball in the post more offensively, but Pitino told his senior co-captain during Saturday’s game to “stop worrying about that.”
“The traps were affecting me and I was letting it get to me,” the 6-7, 250-pound senior forward said. “He just told me to keep my mind on rebounding and getting stops and everything else would fall and roll. So that’s what I did.”
Twenty-one rebounds later, Murphy and the Gophers were happy to have their 65-64 victory against Penn State.
Murphy responded in a game Minnesota (14-4, 4-3) needed desperately after a 27-point loss at Illinois. He had 15 of his 19 points and 17 of his 21 rebounds (which tied a career high) in the second half vs. Penn State, while also recording a career-high six assists, to go with three blocks and three steals. It was a reminder of why he had earned All-Big Ten honors the last two years.
Murphy might be the best rebounder in college basketball. His average of 12 boards per game leads the Big Ten and ranks second nationally. Only Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas (1,411) and Purdue’s Joe Barry Carroll (1,148) are ahead of Murphy in Big Ten history. Murphy could approach Lucas’ mark toward the end of the season.
It was shocking to see Murphy’s numbers in the embarrassing loss at Illinois: three rebounds in 24 minutes. It was only the fourth time he grabbed fewer than four rebounds. The last time was when Pitino met with Murphy two seasons ago after a one-rebound performance in 26 minutes in a loss against Wisconsin.
Pitino remembered telling Murphy on Saturday: “You’re going to draw a lot of attention. Just go get yours. That’s your game.”
“To have 21 rebounds in a Big Ten game, that’s not normal,” Pitino added. “If he’s in that right mentality, I think he’s a special player.”
Just how special wasn’t only obvious in the boxscore Saturday. On a play that everyone will be talking about for a long time, Murphy took his own missed layup, sprang up and slammed a thunderous one-handed dunk on Penn State’s Lamar Stevens with under a minute left in the game. Minnesota’s bench, the home crowd and game announcers went berserk.
When Murphy’s in the right rebounding mind-set, he can do things that even surprise him.
“I honestly did not expect to go up and dunk that,” he said. “I needed that one. I’m not going to lie to you.”