Jordan Murphy doesn’t pay attention to where he’s ranked among the top players in college basketball, but maybe he should to be motivated by how he's perceived nationally entering this season.
After a breakout year with the Gophers as a junior, it comes as a surprise to see the lack of respect Murphy’s receiving in various preseason publications and player rankings for 2018-19.
Street & Smith’s College Basketball Preview hit newsstands this week with Murphy’s face on the regional cover with Iowa’s Tyler Cook and Illinois’ Trent Frazier. That’s rare for a Gopher – and it shows somebody recognized his talent.
But inside the magazine’s pages, Murphy was a no show as a preseason All-American and didn’t get picked on the preseason All-Big Ten first team.
The same goes for lists with Athlon Sports, Lindy’s Sports and Blue Ribbon. Lindy's ranked Murphy No. 54 in the top 150 college basketball players for 2018-19. Athlon ranked Murphy even lower at No. 66, behind 10 other Big Ten players (Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, Indiana’s Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr., Michigan’s Charles Matthews, Michigan State’s Nick Ward, Iowa’s Tyler Cook and Maryland’s Anthony Cowan.) Wow.
No love for Murphy at all.
So why is that exactly? Are double-doubles out of style? It would be absurd to downplay Murphy’s 16.8 points, Big Ten-leading 11.3 rebounds per game (only ex-Boilermaker All-American Caleb Swanigan in 2016-17 had a higher rebound average in the league since 2001) and Division I-best 24 double-doubles last season simply because the Gophers finished 15-17.
Much like the NCAA tournament selection committee judges teams on their full season, Murphy’s entire junior campaign should be considered when measuring him against the best. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound San Antonio native was an absolute beast and legit candidate for not just Big Ten but NCAA player of the year honors when the Gophers started the season 13-3 and were a top-20 team.
Why should Murphy’s status as an elite player suffer so much after the poor play of the Gophers once they became heavily undermanned? Richard Pitino was down four of his top six players when center Reggie Lynch was lost to a season-ending suspension and starting guards Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer had lingering injuries. They already lost talented reserve Eric Curry before the season with a knee injury.
Through the first 12 games last season, Murphy was leading the Big Ten in points (20.2) and rebounds (13.0) and leading the country with 12 straight double-doubles. His double-double streak would extend to 17 straight games, the most in the NCAA since Tim Duncan at Wake Forest in 1996-97. This wasn’t against just cupcake competition. Minnesota played teams like Providence, Alabama, Miami (Fla.), Arkansas, Rutgers, Nebraska and Illinois by midseason.
Murphy was averaging 18.9 points and 12.7 rebounds when his double-double streak ended in the 18th game in a loss at Northwestern. In the last 15 games with no inside help minus Lynch, he still averaged 15.2 points and 9.7 rebounds (on par with Morgan, Cook and Ward), including 22 points and 19 rebounds at Penn State, 21 points and 17 rebounds at Iowa and 22 points and 12 rebounds vs. Nebraska. Impressive numbers considering Murphy was forced to fight a solo battle in the paint as an undersized center.
What made Murphy so dangerous to begin the season was being able to overpower opposing forwards with his strength. Still, he also showcased improved shot-making ability facing the basket and off the dribble. Murphy worked on expanding his offensive game in the offseason, instead of mostly scoring on offensive rebounds and by running the floor. Those skills went into hiding the second half of the season.
Once Lynch was gone, the Gophers had no other post presence. Opposing teams harassed Murphy even more since the U lacked depth to support him. Wisconsin finished 15-17 suffering through injuries as well last season, but Happ is a projected top-three player in the country. So is Edwards, who enjoyed a great season but with four senior starters backing him up at Purdue. Even as impressive as Nebraska’s Palmer Jr. was last season, you can’t forget that he took opponents by surprise by playing in the Big Ten the first time.
Big Ten coaches haven’t forgotten how good Murphy can be with some help around him.
His play at midseason last year wasn’t enough to convince some college hoops observers that could turn into a huge senior season. Maybe that’s exactly what High-Motor Murph needs to prove them wrong.