Bickerstaff emerges as new on-court leader

David La

While he participated in conditioning drills at men’s basketball practice this week, Minnesota forward John-Blair Bickerstaff took notice of the straight-faced expression on team trainer Roger Schipper’s face.
Bickerstaff stood on the raised floor at Williams Arena, surveyed the scene for a moment and then playfully commanded, “Smile!”
Schipper, who then beamed like the Cheshire cat, replied, “J.B., you’re one of the few guys that can make me smile, you know that?”
If spreading good cheer through a program where grins were recently hard to come by is all he accomplishes this season, he’ll have done enough. But Bickerstaff won’t likely stop there.
His statistical line bears witness to his Swiss Army Knife-like versatility. The junior transfer from Oregon State — who leads the team in minutes played — is second on the team in rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. The 6-foot-6 starting forward also contributes 10 points per game.
More importantly, Bickerstaff plays with visible exuberance. He combines with point guard Terrance Simmons to unofficially lead the team in chest bumps, high-fives and sheer emotional output.
“Coach (Dan) Monson told me to be a leader in the right way,” Bickerstaff said. “To come out with enthusiasm and energy and lead this team in the right direction.”
The rest of the Minnesota squad has followed Bickerstaff to a perfect 6-0 nonconference record this season. In the process, the team is surprising a large number of naysayers.
The unblemished record will be put to the test this weekend when the Gophers go on the road for the first time. The on-court presence of Bickerstaff will be counted on if the team hopes to escape the unfriendly confines of the Ducks’ McArthur Court with its seventh win.
Much like last season in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Minnesota’s athletes may again be subjected to taunts by the crowd for its academic fraud problems.
For preparation, the Gophers need to look no further than last year’s game with Oregon for an example of the need for road fortitude.
Last season, Minnesota played host to the Ducks in a game that looked to be a runaway win for the visitors. Oregon jumped out to a 14-point lead at the half but lost its grip in the second stanza.
Following his team’s 72-61 loss, Ducks forward A.D. Smith said the raucous fans at Williams Arena keyed the comeback win for Minnesota.
“When they came back, we didn’t handle the (crowd) noise very well,” Smith said.
Bickerstaff served as a spectator against Oregon last season but figures to be a much bigger factor this time around. His inspired play may even be rewarded with a few cheers from friends and family in attendance.
“I should have a nice crowd coming,” Bickerstaff said. “But I might get some boos from Ducks fans if they remember me.”
While he joked about the possibilities of the cheers and jeers to come, Bickerstaff said that the Gophers’ ability to handle adversity this season began some time ago.
In his estimation, one of the by-products of the coaching and administrative fallout over the last nine months is that there’s a group of unified players left in its wake.
“We had that feeling when everything was tumbling down on top of us — it’s us against everybody,” Bickerstaff said. “I think that will prepare us for the road.”
Bickerstaff’s leadership, coupled with his ability to contribute in all facets is certain to help the Gophers down the road, too.
“He’s the epitome of good leadership both on and off the court,” Monson said. “He’s been very instrumental in getting us through a tough time right now.”

David La Vaque covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]