Jordan Murphy’s potential game-saving shot at the rim met Matt Costello’s outstretched hand before it ever had a chance.
No good. Michigan State grabbed the ball and burned some time, forcing the Gophers to foul and effectively ending Minnesota’s best effort of the season in a 69-61 loss Saturday.
Most Gophers fans would elect to have the ball in Murphy’s hands at the end of the game — and Monday, coach Richard Pitino said he is increasingly thinking along those lines as well — but the miss was another reminder that the 6-6 freshman forward still is learning as he goes.
“We’re going to Murphy a lot,” Pitino said. “He missed a lot of close ones at the end, and you’ve got to sit there and think, ‘What’s he thinking?’ Well, he’s only a freshman, he hasn’t been through that.”
Murphy emerged as the Gophers’ go-to scorer and best player in late November, when he posted his first double-double (24 points, 10 rebounds) in a victory over Clemson. Since then, numbers like that have become almost expected.
The San Antonio native has recorded five double-doubles in the past eight games and averages 11 points per game. He has scored in double digits in all but one of the past nine games. He has pulled down 17 or more rebounds twice and is averaging 8.6, sixth-best among freshmen nationally and second-best in the Big Ten.
Murphy hasn’t let up against stiffer Big Ten competition, but he will need to make adjustments. First tweaks on the docket? Improving his free-throw shooting and getting more creative around the rim.
“All the things he’s doing have nothing to do with coaching, in my opinion,” Pitino said. “They have to do with sheer talent. Now, I think where we can help him is scoring at different angles, doing different things.”
Murphy’s baseline dunk is one of his most powerful moves; he often dunks multiple times a game. But against bigger players, his layups often are too easily swatted away. Pitino said Saturday he would like to see his budding star stop leaving his shots so exposed and lay the ball up straight against the glass, something they worked on Sunday, he said.
Murphy, forced to play small forward, power forward and center at various times through the last few games, also has tried some new things. He is driving into the post more, and taking some shots on the perimeter. He missed two three-pointers against the Spartans but made two long two-pointers.
Pitino said he supports the variety and has laughed at the freshman’s ability to get by mismatches away from the basket — as long as Murphy’s focus is on “burying guys in the post,” where he is so dominant.
“If you’re not going to dunk, you’ve got to stop getting your shot blocked,” Pitino said. “He’s got to get a little craftier with his layups because he’s undersized.”
Murphy agreed, particularly in light of a handful of big misses that came in a game Saturday where he still managed 14 points and nine rebounds.
“Those are shots I need to make for us to be successful, especially against a team like that,” he said. “I need to … mix it up a little bit, instead of going with the whole generic moves.”
Another sticking point in Murphy’s game is his production, or lack of it, from the free-throw line. Murphy has been to the foul stripe 74 times this season, by far the most of any Gophers player. But the trips have been an adventure. Saturday, Murphy went to the line four times and missed all four shots. His .568 percentage on free throws is the worst on the team.
Pitino isn’t overly concerned with any of the small gaps in Murphy’s game. The coach has lauded Murphy’s work ethic and said the freshman still is producing even as opponents have inevitably adjusted to him during the season.
“We’ve worked on [free throws] extra, that’s all you can really do,” Pitino said. “I try not to focus too much on it; it’s like anything else. He was working on it today, working on it yesterday, working on it the day before.”