Kyle Sanden unofficially began his Gophers basketball career as a high school sophomore in 1994, when he and his Lincoln (Thief River Falls) High School teammates made the six-hour trip to Minneapolis to watch the Gophers play Northwestern.
“The first time I saw a game, that was it. It just hooked me,” said Sanden, a 6-11 redshirt freshman. “It wasn’t even a recruiting trip. Our whole team came down and sat in the nosebleed section.”
Sanden remembers that game, a 79-65 Gophers win, because of the tunnel vision it gave him for attending Minnesota. Everyone else remembers it for the unpredictable wanderings of then-Wildcats coach Ricky Byrdsong, who left the bench in the second half and roamed the aisles at Williams Arena, shaking hands with the fans and even flashing the peace sign at one point.
“We were sitting across from the Northwestern bench,” Sanden said. “And once he started doing that stuff we were just watching him the whole time.”
As much trouble as Byrdsong had staying on the bench during the game, little did Sanden know he would have as much trouble getting off it during the early stages of his career at Minnesota.
He essentially missed 18 months of competitive basketball because of health problems, starting with a bout with mono the summer after his senior year. He received a medical redshirt last season after repeated concussions prevented him from playing even one minute for last year’s Final Four team. Then, in the spring, Sanden suffered the first of three fainting spells.
“It was one of the lightest workouts you could think of, and I just felt real bad,” Sanden said. “It was kind of scary.”
Sanden was eventually diagnosed with vasal vagal syncope, a minor neurological condition that lowers blood pressure and causes dizziness and fainting. It’s now controlled with medication, though for a time the side effects were hard to deal with.
He often got so drowsy while working as an intern at Dain Bosworth this summer that he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
Now that his medication is calibrated correctly, Sanden can function normally both on and off the court, saying that he doesn’t even think about his medical condition.
Sanden’s dismissal of his health problem has correlated with an unforeseen boost in his on-court performance. Before Tuesday’s victory over Wisconsin, Sanden had scored in double figures four out of five games, including a career-high 16 against Penn State on Jan. 10.
Typical of a freshman, though, he’s hit a few potholes, including a goose egg in the scoring column Tuesday. Still, coach Clem Haskins has lauded Sanden’s recent play.
“He’s made tremendous strides in the last month,” Haskins said. “He’s improved so much. He’s played through so many aches and pains and fainting spells and having his medicine regulated. We started the year not expecting this guy to play. Not only is he playing, he’s playing extremely well.”
Though Sanden has added 30 pounds to his frame since the start of last season, making him a more imposing figure, his forte remains his outside touch. Haskins said he’s the best shooter on the team.
Not that Sanden doesn’t try to be physical — emphasis on the word “try.” He’ll never be a dominant post-up player on offense, nor does he care to. But on defense, he still has to contend with centers content to root themselves within a five-foot radius of the basket. He’s shown his willingness to tussle underneath this season, even getting into a brief set-to with Purdue center Brad Miller in the Gophers’ Big Ten opener.
Although Sanden has increased his tougness since entering the Big Ten’s world of post-up beatings, he can probably get away with being a little softer in the future. With highly touted seven-footer Joel Przybilla coming to Minnesota next year, Sanden won’t have to play center, as he does on this year’s lilliputian Gophers team. He’ll instead likely become the power forward on a potentially dangerous front line.
“There’s really not too many big powerful centers (in the Big Ten) except for Robert Traylor, and that’s about it,” senior guard Eric Harris said. “Once he’s gone, there’s not going to be too many big, physical players left. With him, Antoine (Broxsie), and Przybilla coming in, they’re going to have a really bright future.”