When he was doing his NBA thing in the 1980s and 1990s, Dennis Rodman was the standard by which all rebounders were judged.

He had an uncanny knack for tracking down the basketball and for seven straight seasons he led the NBA in rebounding, averaging between 14.9 to 18.7 rebounds per game.

And this was not a massive 7-foot beast. Dennis Rodman, who won three championship rings with the Chicago Bulls, was a 6-7 forward.

When Illini coach Brad Underwood looks at Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy, he sees a player who has many of Rodman’s rebounding traits.

Murphy has been an undeniable force for the Golden Gophers this season. He has posted a double-double in all 15 of Minnesota’s games and is averaging 19.1 points and 12.6 rebounds, the rebounding total the second-best in the country.

“Murphy has great timing, great hands and that ‘it’ factor because the ball finds him,” Underwood said as Illinois prepares for the resumption of Big Ten play Wednesday in Minneapolis.

“He does a great job of anticipating where shots will go.

“And he has a very, very quick second jump. He beats bigger guys off the floor with his second jump. He rebounds his misses exceptionally well. A lot of times he put it up there so he can go get it again with a better angle to score.

“And as I told our team, along with his tenacity, he’s kind of like a bully. He bulls his way to where he wants to go. He’s very good at it.”

Minnesota won 24 games last season and was 11-7 in the Big Ten. With the bulk of the roster returning, the Gophers were ranked No. 15 in the Associated Press pre-season Top 25 and climbed to as high as No. 12 before losing three of four games.

Since then, Minnesota has won four straight and hopes to have guard Nate Mason back in the lineup tonight after sitting out Saturday’s game against Harvard with an ankle injury.

Mason, who is second on the team in scoring and No. 1 in assists and 3-point shooter, is a key element.

“He’s a guy who is explosive in transition,” Underwood said. “He has great range and loves step-in 3s. More important, he’s a veteran and a tremendous passer.”

Then there’s Reggie Lynch, the 6-10, 265-pound center and former Illinois State Redbird. Lynch is Minnesota’s defensive backstop and has 59 blocked shots this season, fourth best in the country.

As for the Illini, Underwood said his team is holding up pretty well physically despite weekend signs that the flu bug might be starting to bite.

“I think we’re a little bit better,” Underwood said. “I wouldn’t say we’re 100 percent but we’re closer, anyway.”

Underwood said he’s still unsure whether his team will open the game in high gear, something that’s been a problem for much of the season. But he said there’s generally a price to pay for slow starts in conference play.

“I’d like to say I could pinpoint what the deal is, but I don’t know,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve taken a lot of pride in that and over the last four years (my teams) have shown up every single night.

“In conference play, if you don’t show up you’re going to lose…you don’t deserve to win. The bench will get utilized more if we’re not into it from the start. I’m not afraid to make a wholesale line change.”

After tonight’s game, Illinois will remain in Minneapolis and practice there Thursday and Friday before flying to Ann Arbor, Mich., for Saturday’s 11 a.m., game against Michigan.

With no academic responsibilities due to semester break, Underwood felt it made more sense to stay on the road through Saturday. 

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Sports writer

Mike Monahan covers area sports for the JG-TC.

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