MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - The emotions of the final regular season home game at Williams Arena Tuesday night are going to have be put on hold for the Gophers and their five seniors.
There’s work to do for Minnesota, with No. 11-ranked Purdue coming to The Barn as the Big Ten leader at 15-3. The Gophers can do themselves a big favor in their NCAA Tournament chances with a win over the Boilermakers. They can essentially secure an at-large bid with a victory, rather than having to rely on a Big Ten Tournament run.
It will be the final time on the Williams Arena floor for Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer, Matz Stockman, graduate transfer Brock Stull and Jarvis Johnson, the lone local senior. They will be honored pregame, but the ultimate gift will be hearing Minnesota get called on Selection Sunday.
“I think all of the guys have the expectation to make the tournament. I don’t think we’re going to accept anything less from our guys. That starts with me and Dupree,” said Murphy, who will go down as one of the best players to ever wear a Gopher uniform. “From top to bottom, everyone wants that so we’re going to try our best to do everything we can in our power to get that to happen.”
Richard Pitino doesn’t sense that his players are putting any extra pressure on themselves. While it’s difficult to manage the emotions of Senior Night and the final home game, it’s ultimately about winning. For the Gophers, it’s about putting themselves in the best possible position for an NCAA Tournament berth.
They’ve had plenty of opportunities with winnable games against quality opponents, but had tough shooting nights in home losses to Wisconsin and Michigan. They had a controversial loss at Nebraska, and couldn’t stop Rutgers late in a road loss.
Minnesota bounced back last Thursday, with Amir Coffey dominating in a 62-50 Gophers’ win at Northwestern. Coffey’s 31 point and 12 rebounds, his first double-double as a Gopher, earned him Big Ten Player of the Week honors. It also got the Gophers feeling good about themselves heading into a huge game Tuesday night. But they’re not putting extra pressure on themselves, but rather looking at it as another opportunity for a quality win.
The reality is the Gophers need to win one of their final two regular season games, and win one Big Ten Tournament game to feel good about their NCAA Tournament chances.
“Don’t really talk about it much. I have not sensed in any way they’re really concerned with that,” Pitino said of the NCAA Tournament bubble. “I think we’re playing pretty good basketball.”
The Gophers have five seniors who took vastly different paths to have Minnesota on the front of their jersey. Murphy will go down as one of the best Gopher players ever, but was originally going to play for Shaka Smart at VCU. Smart left for Texas, and Murphy signed with Pitino.
He helped lead the Gophers as a sophomore to a 24-win season and a trip to the Big Dance. He had to endure plenty last season, between teammates being injured and Reggie Lynch’s suspension. Murphy’s freshman year, Minnesota won just two Big Ten games and was marred by suspensions late in the season.
He'll end his Gophers career in the top 10 in scoring, and as the program's all-time leading rebounder. Murphy said it himself Monday. He’s been through pretty much everything.
“I don’t think you could’ve written a better story. I think we’ve overcome a lot, been through the worst of slumps and the highest of highs. I think that’s just something that’s a part of life that everyone goes through no matter what they’re doing,” Murphy said.
It figures to be an emotional night for McBrayer, who lost his mother to cancer earlier this season. He’ll have family in town for the game and his aunt will be on the floor with him for a pregame ceremony.
He gutted through a leg injury most of last season that wouldn’t allow him to practice, but he refused to not play. Even if that meant only having one good leg. He’s also grown up a lot from being suspended for five games at the end of his freshman year for violating team rules.
His four years at Minnesota came full circle back on Dec. 8, 2018. Just days after his mother’s death, he hit a key three-pointer to fuel a Gophers comeback in a win over Nebraska. He was mobbed by teammates after and couldn’t fight back the tears, along with his head coach.
“You look at the resiliency and the strength and the mental toughness that he showed this year, to be able to play through the pain that he was going through, his ability to move on after the funeral, not many people could do what he did,” Pitino said.
McBrayer already dedicated his senior season to his late mother. There’s not a better tribute to her than a win over Purdue Tuesday, and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“Our back is against the wall, so we have to perform at our best. We’re at home, so to have a top-15 team come in, what more could you want?” McBrayer said.
Jarvis Johnson was Pitino’s first big local recruit. But he will never see the court for the Gophers. He was declared ineligible before his freshman season due to a heart condition.
He plays on his own and was active last summer in the Twin Cities Pro-Am, but he’s now relegated to being a coach on the bench and a supportive teammate.
“He’s been a terrific member of our team, great on the bench, great in the locker room. He’s a leader in a lot of ways that people don’t know about,” Pitino said.
So while Tuesday is about sending the seniors off on the right note, it’s just as much about defending the home court and getting a win over a top-15 program. If the Gophers can do both, they’re also likely dancing.