The rebounding finesse from former Gophers men’s basketball stand-out Jordan Murphy was going to be tough to replace. Murphy was consistently one of the best on the glass in the country and certainly in the Big Ten.
Current Gophers center Daniel Oturu is making a strong case for filling that void left by Murphy, who finished up his four-year career last spring. Oturu has taken on that rebounding role of what Murphy did for the Gophers.
Oturu put on another solid performance with his ninth double-double of the season with 19 points and 16 rebounds in a 77-68 victory over an injury-depleted Northwestern team on Sunday evening.
“He’s producing at a ridiculous rate,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “He’s doing a lot of good things. He’s becoming one of the better players in the league. He’s just taken that next step, which is great to see.”
Oturu came into the game leading the team with 19.1 points and 12.2 boards per game, shooting nearly 64%. He just missed a fourth straight game with 20-plus points, and he’s recorded 20, 18 and 16 rebounds in his past three games. The 6-10 sophomore was named Big Ten Player of the Week this past Monday.
Last season, Oturu averaged seven boards a game and scored 10.8 points on average. In 133 games for Murphy, he averaged 9.8 rebounds a game. Murphy is also the program’s leading rebounder, by far, with 1,307 rebounds; second on the list is Mychal Thompson with 956. Through Sunday, Oturu is up to 420 career rebounds.
“I feel like people thought that without Murphy the rebounding would go down,” Oturu said. “But I was not worried about it at all. As a team, we’re probably a better rebounding team this year than we were last year.”
He’s right, at least so far. The Gophers grabbed an average of 36.5 rebounds per game last season (1,313 rebounds), and through 14 games this year that mark is 40.4 per game (566 rebounds). The Gophers won the rebounding battle over Northwestern 43-28, including hauling in 15 offensive boards.
Oturu creates quite the matchup challenge for opponents. Teammate Marcus Carr, a redshirt sophomore guard, called him a “beast on the boards.” But Oturu is also able to stretch the floor, shoot from 3-point range and hit mid-range jumpers. There isn’t much he can’t do, Carr said.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins acknowledged that Oturu is a tough player to cover for those reasons. He’ll score inside, hang around the high post, make mid-range jumpers and “he’s a monster on the glass.”
“I thought we did a pretty good job, and he still gets 19 (points) and 16 (rebounds),” Collins said. “That kind of shows you what a player he is.”
Even so, neither Oturu nor Pitino was satisfied with the center’s overall performance Sunday.
“Whatever stats I finished with today, I feel like I didn’t have that good of a game,” said Oturu, who shot 6-for-10 with three assists, five blocks and four turnovers. “Coach P also feels like I didn’t have that good of a game. So he’s always pushing me to play the best I can play.
“Just with somebody like him always in my ear, ‘You can do more, you can do more.’ I really appreciate that, because it just gives you more confidence and makes you want to work even harder and be the best player you can be.”
Oturu can also be seen flexing both of his arms after a huge play, like after he finishes a dunk. Flashy? Nah, his teammates don’t see it that way.
“It’s really just energy, honestly,” Carr said. “He’s constantly giving the group energy… trying to be a motivator.
“And we appreciate him for that.”
Oturu led a deep Gophers scoring effort Sunday. Eight different players recorded points, with Carr (17 points), senior forward Alihan Demir (11 points) and freshman guard Tre’ Williams (10 points) all reaching double-figures. The Gophers used those offensive rebounds to score 18 second-chance points; they won that battle over Northwestern by an 8-0 margin in the first half and 18-6 for the game.
“That’s what we want,” Pitino said, of his team’s scoring depth. “We want a balanced attack.”
Despite a roster that had received some tough injury news the past few days, Northwestern (5-8, 0-3) chipped away at a 23-point second-half deficit to get within nine points, thanks in large part to a quick trio of treys from sophomore forward Miller Koop. The Wildcats were without first-year guard Boo Buie, who Collins said will be out for a while, senior forward A.J. Turner (who will be back “hopefully sooner rather than later,” Collins said) and junior guard Anthony Gaines, who’s out for the year with a shoulder injury and will have surgery this week, according to Collins.
Part of Northwestern trying to get back in the game late also helped the Gophers get to the free-throw line. They were perfect from the line, making all 19 free throws (17 in the second half), with Carr making 10 and Oturu adding seven.
“Obviously, making every single free throw is phenomenal,” Pitino said.
The Gophers victory was a nice bounce-back game following the team’s 83-78 double-overtime loss at Purdue on Thursday, especially since Pitino said his team was exhausted going into Sunday’s game. Minnesota (8-6, 2-2) has now won four of five games with a stretch that started with the upset, court-storming win over No. 3 Ohio State on Dec. 15.
It’s the first victory over Northwestern at Williams Arena in seven years, when the Gophers won 69-51 at the Barn on Jan. 6, 2013 under Tubby Smith. Sunday’s win snapped a four-game home losing streak for the Gophers against the Wildcats.
The Gophers improved to 7-1 at home while still looking for their first road win of the season (0-4). They’ll head to Michigan State on Thursday before hosting Michigan next Sunday.