Over the next three days, OGGOA will take a look at each of the three seniors set to be honored Wednesday evening as the Florida Gators basketball program celebrates Senior Night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
Two years ago, forward Erik Murphy returning to play for the Florida Gators as a junior was far from a certainty.
Coming off consecutive seasons in which he felt he was underutilized and faced with – at best – an indefinite suspension following an arrest, Murphy felt that he might be better served continuing his career elsewhere. Certainly those around him and in his ear made it known that leaving Florida for greener pastures would be in his best interest.
“It was tough,” Murphy recalled on Monday when reflecting on that time in his life. “Obviously my freshman year I didn’t play much, my sophomore year I played more at the beginning of the year and then I got hurt and wasn’t really the same. It was partially my fault for not getting back to where I was. It was tough.
“I had a lot of people telling me a lot of different things. When it really came down to it, I talked to [head coach Billy Donovan] and he said, ‘What do you really want to do? It’s your life. You got to make a decision for yourself.’ For myself, I loved it here. I wanted to stay here. When I really thought about it like that, it was a pretty easy decision for me.”
The decision to stay immediately paid dividends. Murphy, who was indeed suspended from the team by Donovan, spent the summer and subsequent fall working on many aspects of his game. He went from reserve to starter (playing 25.9 minutes per contest in 2011-12), averaged 10.5 points per game, shot 42.1 percent from beyond the arc and even made a difference in the paint by grabbing 4.5 rebounds per contest.
“Looking at what happened to him his first two years, he didn’t play too much. He gets into a little bit of a difficulty after his sophomore year, things aren’t going well. He kind of grows up, he matures, he really evolves and develops into being a really good player for us, maybe one of the best shooting big men in the country,” Donovan said on Monday.
Murphy has only improved those numbers now as a senior, averaging career-highs in minutes (26.6), points (12.4), field goal percentage (.534), three-point shooting (.464) and rebounding (5.0) despite playing most of the regular season with a fractured rib for which he only missed a single game.
Though he and Donovan have not spoken at length about his professional career, a conversation Murphy said “will come up after the season is over,” his coach did not refrain from comparing him to other well-known players out of Florida like Matt Bonner, Greg Stolt and even Mike Miller.
“He’s definitely going to have a chance. There’s no question,” Donovan said. “He has an NBA skill. That guy can really, really shoot – and he’s got size. So he’s going to have a chance. Where he’s drafted…I have no idea but there will be enough of an intrigue.”
Before the NBA comes into the picture, Murphy and his teammates are focused on winning the outright Southeastern Conference regular season championship. The Gators have an opportunity to do that in the friendly confines of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on Wednesday when they take on the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Donovan mentioned at length on Monday that no player in program history has ever been a part of two outright SEC title teams. Murphy and the rest of the upperclassmen have that opportunity this week.
“That would be huge. It would be something that is real special for this team to accomplish,” Murphy said. “Most of the guys – everybody except the freshmen – were here when we won it that first time [in 2011]. To do it again would be something special, especially my last year and the possibility of doing it on Senior Night here would be pretty special.”
Murphy’s parents, youngest brother, aunt, uncle and cousin will all be in attendance on Wednesday as will a couple of his close family friends. Senior Night will undoubtedly be emotional but the gravity of the evening has not yet hit the big man.
“It snuck up. No question. It doesn’t feel like it’s my last home game at all. It’s hard to really grasp that,” he said. “[Erving Walker] wasn’t really an emotional kid; he didn’t show much emotion. I think [Senior Night last season] was the only time I’ve ever seen him cry. That just goes to show how much emotion comes with that just because of how much everybody is invested in the team and in the program. When you finally come to the realization that it’s your last game at school here, it’s something special.”
Murphy also made it a point Monday to note that he holds his teammates in that same regard. He is not the only Florida player that had to battle through injury this season but being on the mend helped him get a first-hand look at how selfless his teammates have been as the Gators have rallied together to put the outright SEC title within reach.
“Being in the position that we are goes to show what kind of team we are,” he said. “We come together when we need to. We come together at all times, but we especially band together when we’re in situations like that. Now that everybody is back healthy, it will be even more special because everybody is contributing out there together. It will be something really special.”
When the whistle sounds on Wednesday, Senior Night will be over but Florida’s season and Murphy’s Gators career will continue for what he hopes is another full month.
National championship in his hands or not, Murphy will flashback through his four years at Florida the moment he removes the jersey that he donned for four years for the last time. Perhaps then he will be able to better articulate what he has been able to take away from this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“There’s too much to even [put in words]. There’s so much that I could take away: life lessons, basketball lessons. It’s been a crazy four years. It’s been a roller coaster ride, but it’s been the best four years of my life.”
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports