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Murphy Earns a Spot with U Greats

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January 30, 2019

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After last Sunday’s game against Iowa, Gophers senior Jordan Murphy is now the second leading career rebounder in Big Ten Conference history with 1,150 rebounds. As of Monday morning he was also the nation’s fourth leading rebounder while averaging a Big Ten best 12 rebounds per game.

In an upset win over No. 19 ranked Iowa Murphy had 23 points and 11 rebounds, a typical double-double performance for the power forward who ranks among the nation’s leaders in that category. He is Minnesota’s all-time leader in not only rebounding but double-doubles. He is closing fast on the end of his college career at Minnesota where he is the team’s leading rebounder each of the last four seasons and has moved into the top 10 for career points in Gopher history.

Where does Murphy rank with the program’s greatest players ever? Will he have his jersey number retired with Randy Breuer, Jim Brewer, Dick Garmaker, Lou Hudson, Kevin McHale, Chuck Mencel, Whitey Skoog, Mychal Thompson and Trent Tucker?

I watched all of those players except for Garmaker, Mencel and Skoog. Yet if I could “draft” one former Gopher to start a team, my choice is Bobby Jackson. He has yet to be honored with the other nine greats because he played on the 1995-96 and 1996-97 teams whose seasons have been erased from the record books as part of the NCAA enforced penalties of the coach Clem Haskins era.

Jackson was the best clutch player I ever watched at Minnesota. He played point guard, the most important position in college basketball, and when the Gophers needed a late game impact play on offense and defense he answered the challenge like few players have in Big Ten history.

Another ex-Gopher I would take in a heartbeat over some of the jersey-honored players is point guard Archie Clark from the 1960s. Clark was similar to Jackson, a terrific defender, scorer and clutch player. Clark was overshadowed at Minnesota by teammate and forward Lou Hudson, probably the most gifted multi-skilled player in program history.

Jordan Murphy photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications.

At Minnesota it seems like the priority factor for players getting their jersey numbers retired is having impressive statistics as measured against others who have been in the program. In that regard, Murphy should one day stand on the Williams Arena floor and watch his No. 3 jersey find a place in the rafters among the great players who preceded him at the U.

Murphy is the reigning Co-Big Ten Player of the Week after Minnesota’s most recent games with Michigan and Iowa. He had 15 points and 11 rebounds in a loss at now No. 5 ranked Michigan, and against Iowa he had a career high six assists and earned his 13th double-double of the season. “He’s a heck of a player,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said earlier this month after his Terps defeated the Gophers in Minneapolis.

Robbie Hummel, the former Purdue star and ex-Minnesota Timberwolf, has watched Murphy play while working as a game analyst for the Big Ten Network. “I am not sure I remember a guy who rebounds the way that Jordan does,” he told Sports Headliners. “His motor is so phenomenal. …He’s really been one of a kind. I am trying to think of the really all-time great rebounders in this conference. He’s right up there with any of them.”

Jerry Lucas, the legendary center from Ohio State, is the conference’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,411 rebounds. He played during an era (1959-62) when freshmen weren’t eligible so his remarkable total was accomplished in three seasons, while Murphy has played in almost four. That’s an example of why statistics can be somewhat misleading in college basketball where today’s players participate in more seasons and games than many of their predecessors.

There’s no denying, though, that history will judge Murphy as a special Gopher. Somewhat undersized at 6-foot-7 (or perhaps 6-foot-6), the husky 250-pounder has a gift for rebounding on both defense and offense. “He gets up (in the air) before everyone else can get there, with his quick hops off the floor,” Mike Grimm said.

Grimm is in his 13th season as the Gophers’ radio play-by-play man. He ranks Murphy among the Big Ten’s elite players this winter. “I think if you had a draft somebody should pick him in the top five,“ Grimm said.

Murphy isn’t flashy in style of play, or personality. He’s a grinder and not without weaknesses in his game. He certainly can have his awkward and not so productive moments. At the top of any such list is a tendency to foul too much, including early in games.

That sends the team MVP to the bench, and it’s frustrating to watch because often his infractions seem so unnecessary, while other times he’s the target of blown calls by officials. The Gophers aren’t the same team without Murphy’s rebounding and low post scoring.

The opinion here is the soft-spoken and likeable Murphy has gone through his college career under appreciated in this town and beyond. Grimm pointed out that awhile ago the Big Ten Network listed its top five forwards and centers in the Big Ten and didn’t include Murphy. Then the network acknowledged that the San Antonio native probably should have been among the elite.

Why the slight? “I think he’s quiet. I don’t think he’s flamboyant,” Grimm said. “He’s not going to knock your socks off by hitting seven threes in a night. Now he can dunk and he moves well, but I don’t think he’s one of those guys that’s going to come flying from the free throw line and throw one down either. He works hard to get his points. A lot of his points come on putbacks where he has worked to establish position.”

Winning teams help players receive recognition. Two of the past three seasons have been disasters for the Gophers but Murphy’s sophomore year the team was 24-10 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten. He was selected third team All-Big Ten that year and second team a year ago when he led the league in rebounding and the nation in double-doubles. This fall he was named first-team Preseason All-Big Ten.

Minnesota goes into tonight’s game at home against Illinois with an overall record of 15-5 and 5-4 in the Big Ten. If the Gophers can finish toward the top of the league standings and advance to the NCAA Tournament, regional and national honors are more likely for Murphy who is on the 25-man list of candidates announced this month for the Wooden Award, recognizing the nation’s best Division I player.

After leaving the Gophers Murphy will try to make an NBA roster. Because of his minimal height for a front court power position player and limited shooting range and ball handling, he is suspect as an NBA draft choice. Nbadraft.net, for example, doesn’t list Murphy on its 2019 mock draft for either the first or second rounds.

Former Gophers head coach Jim Dutcher sent McHale, Thompson and Tucker to the NBA and successful careers but he’s uncertain about Murphy’s pro future. “If you project him (Murphy), I don’t know where the pros…would put him,” Dutcher told Sports Headliners. “He’s not an outside player and in the league (NBA) he’ll have trouble scoring with the size of those (big guys).

“So he’s kind of a mystery guy, but you look at him as just a college player, he’s gotta be one of the better guys ever to play (at Minnesota). With his versatility, his double-doubles, his being the all-time rebounder.”

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

(1) Reader Comment

  1. avatar
    Charley Mencel
    January 30, 2019 at 11:07 am

    You could not be more appropriate in recognizing Jordan Murphy as one of the greatest Gopher BB players. We have been watching the Gophers now for over 60 years. The players whose banners hang from the rafters are there because of some very subjective comparisons by different people over many decades of basketball and the game has changed so much. There are many others deserving to be there. When I played, there were no African American players in the South and only two Big Ten teams had one or two. We only played 22 games each year and there was no March Madness. I wonder if I might not make the team today.

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