Florida’s game with Air Force on Dec. 29 was just two or three possessions old when the collision occurred.
Gator forward Erik Murphy doesn’t recall who ran into him, but he won’t soon forget the blow to his rib cage, just under his left arm.
“Sharp, sharp pain,” Murphy said.
During the first timeout, Murphy gobbled a couple of ibuprofen, returned to the fray and turned in one of his best games of the season—21 points, 8-of-10 shooting from the floor, including 2 of 3 from the 3-point line, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and a steal.
For the next week, Murphy was in pain, but only he and Florida trainer Dave “Duke” Werner knew it. Werner fitted Murphy with a protective pad, and the injury may have been forgotten had Murphy not jettisoned the pad during Florida’s final practice before a Jan. 6 game at Yale.
Of course it was during that practice that Murphy’s battered ribs absorbed more punishment, this time at the hands of a teammate.
“It was definitely worse than the first time,” Murphy said. “I got hit right on the spot.”
This time, x-rays revealed one of Murphy’s ribs was broken. The native of South Kingstown, R.I., would miss his homecoming senior game at Yale, and his prognosis was uncertain. Florida coach Billy Donovan had broken a couple of ribs when he played at Providence, and he knew how painful—and restrictive—that injury could be.
But by Florida’s next game, its Southeastern Conference opener against Georgia, Murphy was back on the floor, contributing 11 points on 3-of-6 3-point shooting in a 33-point victory.
“The guy’s a quick healer,” Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey said. “It’s hard to keep him down. He’s had a couple situations where people have said there was no way he can get back and practice, let alone play. But he always does. He’s got a high threshold for pain. A strong desire to play and compete.”
There’s a good reason Murphy got back into the lineup as soon as he could. Florida, ranked No. 4 in both major polls and in the conversation as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, is in the middle of one of its most promising seasons under Donovan. This is a group that has been compared favorably to Donovan’s 2006-07 teams, the ones that etched Gator basketball into the game’s history book by winning consecutive national championships.
Murphy wasn’t about to let a little thing like a broken rib force him to miss out on all the fun the Gators are having during their 17-2 (7-0 SEC) start that includes a 23.4-point average margin of victory against a schedule ranked the 14th toughest in the country.
Murphy’s been a huge part of that success so far. Along with Duke’s Ryan Kelly, he’s become perhaps the college game’s top face-up power forward, a “stretch” four in basketball parlance. A lot of players consider themselves stretch fours, but only because they are adept at the stretch part of the equation, i.e. 3-point shooting. True stretch fours are equally proficient from the perimeter—the easy part—and in the post, a more blue-collar pursuit from which many players shy away.
Erik Murphy is a true stretch four, a transformation that has come gradually but is nonetheless striking, even for Florida’s coaching staff.
“We were watching a little bit of film the other day, preparing to play South Carolina,” Florida assistant Matt McCall said. “It was our game against Frank Martin [then coaching Kansas State, now at South Carolina] a couple of years ago. You watch Erik then and he was more just a spot up 3-point shooter. I don’t know if anyone felt real confident if the ball was dumped into the post, strength-wise and everything else, that Erik could do anything with it.
“Now we want the ball going inside to him. We feel great that he’s going to make a good strong move, and eight times out of 10 score the ball.”
Murphy is making 62 percent of his two-point field-goal attempts, indicating a willingness to use his 6-foot-10, 238-pound frame to maneuver, and even pound, for high-percentage shots. Combine that with his SEC-leading .487 3-point shooting (38 of 78) and it’s a weapon few teams have, but every team wants.
“In recruiting, you’re always trying to find that guy,” McCall said. “Because they’re so rare. But how often do they come along? The last one here was Matt Bonner, and he graduated in 2003.”
Murphy didn’t arrive at Florida as a fully formed inside-outside guy. Even last summer, Donovan was grousing about things Murphy could do to improve.
“He’s got a good touch and skill level around the basket,” Donovan told Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. “[But] I’d like to see him be more physical against smaller people. He really adds a different dimension because he can step away from the basket and shoot. But if that gets taken away, I still think he can be a factor offensively.
“… He’s got to get a better base. He’s got a nice little jump hook down there, but he’s got to get his lower body stronger so he doesn’t get knocked off his spot.”
Murphy did as he was told. He credits Florida strength coach Preston Greene for helping him add the final puzzle piece that has made him a go-to guy in the paint and one of the most complete offensive players in college basketball.
“He’s brought some new things to the program,” Murphy said. “A different style of training that I’ve really benefitted from. My legs feel a lot stronger. I’m not getting pushed around as much.”
Murphy has become yet another example of how—foreign though it may seem in this age of one-and-done players—players who have NBA aspirations can help themselves by staying in school, learning more about the game, getting stronger, maturing.
“We have a hall of fame coach on our staff,” McCall said. “If you take a hall of fame coach and you have a kid willing to put the work in, by the time they are juniors or seniors, they’re going to be all league and maybe next-level players.”
“Billy has put Erik in position where he can showcase his skills,” Pelphrey said. “He’s really had a chance to develop over the course of his career. Now, he’s not only one of the best players in our league, but the country.”
It’s been all about perseverance, and patience. Murphy didn’t play as much as he wanted early in his career, and he pondered the possibility of transferring. But in the interest of the common good, Murphy stayed and allowed Donovan to do what he does. Most players who have the patience to stay in his program and wait their turn to shine get that chance, because inevitably, they become better players than they were as freshmen.
“As you get older, you realize you can do more,” Murphy said. “You take the extra time to fine tune things. You take in as much coaching as you can. And you realize, it’s about focus. If you focus on getting better and work at it, you’ll get better.”