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 Bicker-staff, 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," Przybilla says.
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."