Even on the night of his greatest triumph, Minnesota's 7'1"
sophomore center Joel Przybilla could not escape feelings of
loss. Just 15 minutes after he scored a career-high 33 points in
the Gophers' 77-75 upset of No. 10 Indiana on Feb. 9, Przybilla
was informed by Minnesota coach Dan Monson that Przybilla's best
friend and roommate, 6'6" junior John-Blair Bickerstaff, would
be lost for the rest of the season because of a broken right leg
he had suffered early in the game. Przybilla's eyes welled up
with tears, and he quickly left the locker room so he could
visit Bickerstaff at the hospital. "It's too bad Joel didn't get
to savor the win a little more, but he's emotional like that,"
Monson says. "He reminds me of the guy in the movie Big. He's a
little kid in a big body."
Przybilla still has some growing up to do, but he's quickly
blossoming into a big-time big man. After spending his freshman
year specializing in rebounding and shot blocking, Przybilla has
developed a touch around the basket that has made him one of the
most dangerous post players in the nation. He hit 16 of his 19
shots against Indiana, including the game-winner with 3.9
seconds to play, and through Sunday his 61.3% shooting was first
in the Big Ten. He was second in the conference in blocks (3.9
per game), third in rebounding (8.4) and 12th in scoring (14.2).
Przybilla has been a rare bright spot in a program that has been
enshrouded in darkness since last March, when revelations of
widespread academic fraud were first revealed. Though the NCAA
has yet to hand down a penalty for the violations, the school
has already imposed a postseason ban on this year's Gophers, who
were 12-9 overall and 4-7 in the Big Ten. "Beating Indiana was
the closest we'll get to feeling like we made the Final Four,"
A Minnesota native, Przybilla had an especially difficult time
dealing with the academic scandal. Rumors that he intended to
transfer swirled through the local media last summer, and six
days before the Gophers' home opener he told Monson that he was
having trouble sleeping and needed some time away from
basketball. Przybilla missed an exhibition game while holed up
for two days in his parents' house in nearby Monticello before
deciding to rejoin the Gophers.
Since then he has drawn nothing but verbal pats on the back from
rival coaches for his play--though sometimes they sound more as
if they're shoving him out the door. After he had 15 points and
14 boards in a 71-63 loss at Ohio State, the Buckeyes' Jim
O'Brien said Przybilla would "easily be a lottery pick if he
decided to come out this year." Northwestern's Kevin O'Neill, a
69-60 loser to Minnesota, said Przybilla "will go in the top six
or seven [in the draft] when he goes this year." Przybilla,
however, doesn't sound as though he's going anywhere soon.
"You're supposed to have the best time of your life in college,"
he says. "The last year hasn't been easy, but right now I'm
having a blast."
COLOR PHOTO: WENDELL VANDERSLUIS/U. OF MINNESOTA