DES MOINES – Jordan Murphy hovered over the Gophers bench like the ghost of good times past.
One of the most durable and productive players in program history, the senior would spend all but four minutes of his last college game standing, gingerly stretching his back and whispering into the ears of shell-shocked teammates.
Back spasms aren’t merely painful and debilitating. They’re also fickle. Imagine being tased without warning by a vicious ghost.
Playing Michigan State with a bad back is like fighting Mike Tyson without a mouthguard, and Murphy’s stint lasted about as long as one round of a boxing match. Without his presence inside, the Gophers never made Michigan State sweat in its 70-50 victory in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday night.
“We all love Murphy,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He’s a great kid, a tough kid, the best rebounder on the planet, and it was sad not to see him be able to play.”
The Gophers’ Richard Pitino has coached in three NCAA tournament games. He has not finished any of them with the full use of his most accomplished player.
In 2017, the Gophers were a No. 5 seed, playing against a veteran Middle Tennessee State team seeded lower than merited, at No. 12. Gophers point guard Nate Mason tried to play despite a painful hip injury and couldn’t function. Their spiritual leader, Akeem Springs, was missing because of an Achilles’ tendon injury, and MTSU beat Minnesota 81-72.
This week in Des Moines, the Gophers entered the tournament as a No. 10 seed. They dominated Louisville in the first round, but Murphy, who ranks second in Big Ten history in rebounds, injured his back. On Saturday in the second round, he tried to play for four minutes before leaving the game.
The Gophers were already missing forward Eric Curry, who played in only 15 games this season before suffering a season-ending foot injury, and center Matz Stockman, who had become a key member of the rotation but suffered a a concussion in the Big Ten tournament.
You could accuse Minnesota of lacking the depth to make up for its injuries, but few college teams could lose three inside players and survive against a brawny team like Michigan State.
“You try to create your own luck,” Pitino said. “We’ve had some injuries at the wrong time. But we’re not going to complain about it. I do believe things will even out at some point.
“Two years ago, we had the same thing.”
Murphy had never played less than 12 minutes in a game at Minnesota before Saturday. Having a back injury before the biggest game of his career seems cruel, but it’s a cruel tournament. “Rarely does it end well in sports,” Pitino said.
Gophers basketball will always face an uphill climb, will always need to maximize good seasons because Minnesota plays in a league with so many traditional powers.
In the Gophers’ past two NCAA tournament losses, they didn’t get to take their best shot.
Saturday, they might as well have had Amir Coffey take all of them.
With little veteran or scoring help, Coffey took it upon himself to put up a fight, driving into the lane when he knew Michigan State would punish him. He hit the floor a dozen times, wincing at blows to his wrist, his hip, his elbows.
Coffey finished with 27 of his team’s 50 points, and left the game with 1:27 left, shortly after Murphy had subbed into the game so he could receive an ovation that the Michigan State bench and its fan section joined in on.
Murphy deserved the tribute, but he would have preferred to end his career the way he spent his career — taking elbows underneath the basket.
“That was hard,” Pitino said. “That was emotional. The hardest thing was that he couldn’t play in the game, trying to go to the Sweet 16. Because he’s done so much.”