By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. – Would Auburn be 20-2, ranked No. 11 nationally and atop the SEC standings if not for the play of Desean Murray this season?
After sitting out all of last season, the 6-foot-3 transfer from Presbyterian earned a spot in the starting lineup at the four. He’s currently averaging 11.3 points per game, and he leads the team with 7.1 rebounds per game. But all you have to do is ask some of his teammates, and you can get a sense for how valuable he has been.
“He leads us,” sophomore forward Anfernee McLemore said. “He’s one of the older players, so he’s a big factor in what we do as a team. He leads us on the rebounding end. And even though he’s not the tallest player, he’s one of the toughest.”
“He’s brought more grit to this team,” added junior Horace Spencer. “He’s 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, but he plays like he’s 7-foot. He’s strong.”
“He’s really that big difference maker that we needed,” junior guard Bryce Brown said. “On the glass, hustle, he scores, rebounds, he finds teammates – he does everything for us.”
Mustapha Heron might have said it best when he called Murray a “little Charles Barkley” after the junior forward scored 15 points and pulled down eight rebounds in an 88-77 home win over Arkansas last month.
“He does things that nobody else wants to do,” Heron said at the time. “He rebounds, he plays hard, he hits guys, he gets hit, and he doesn’t fall.”
Listed at 6-foot-6 when he played at Auburn, Barkley was probably closer to 6-4. But he averaged 14.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game during his three-year career, and helped put Auburn basketball on the map. From there, he went on to play 16 decorated seasons in the NBA and earned Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 1996.
To be compared to Barkley is a big deal for Murray.
“That’s a great honor because Barkley, he was great here,” Murray said. “He went on and played at the next level and did great things. He got a statue. So it’s a great honor, of course. It just makes me want to play harder for my team.”
But Murray isn’t Barkley. He’s Desean Murray. From high school when he accepted the first scholarship he was offered by Presbyterian to his two years playing in the Big South Conference to now starting for a top-15 Auburn team, he’s forged his own path. It’s not always been easy – he’s a 6-foot-3 big man – but he continues to exceed expectations at every stop along the way.
At Presbyterian, Murray was named Big South Freshman of the Year after averaging 15.7 points and 8.2 rebounds his first year. He followed that up the next year by leading the conference with 20.2 points per game and averaging 7.4 rebounds per game.
But as productive as he was, Murray sought a new challenge. He wanted to play on a bigger stage, so he transferred to Auburn despite knowing he would have to sit out a year.
“It was difficult because you’re sitting on the bench and you know you can’t really do anything to get on the court and help your team,” Murray said. “You can cheer as loud as you can, but that’s about it. But it allowed me some time to get better. It allowed me to get in the gym and work on things I wanted to work on.”
Now Murray is playing against bigger and better competition at Auburn, and he continues to produce. He’s going up and getting rebounds against guys that are five, six, seven inches taller than he is, and he’s still currently No. 6 in the SEC in rebounds.
What’s his secret?
“Honestly, I just really go out there and play my hardest,” Murray said. “I guess my instinct and knowing where the ball is coming off, but it’s really just hard work. You just have to go out there and play as hard as you can. It’s mostly heart.”
Heart. Determination. Toughness. Murray defines himself as somebody who is going to do whatever he can to help his team win, and that team-first attitude has helped him become one of the SEC’s better players. More importantly, it’s helped Auburn become one of the best teams in college basketball this season.
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: