Simmons takes over leadership role for Gophers

Mark Heller

It was the end of January this year and Terrance Simmons was not looking forward to the Super Bowl.
He was preoccupied with another issue: a fight within himself.
The Minnesota junior point guard felt he was leading the team off a cliff. Beginning with an 86-61 loss at Indiana, the Gophers lost four games in a row by an average of 17.5 points.
They escaped with a nine-point win against floundering Northwestern.
On Jan. 29, the Gophers were plodding along at 3-5 in the Big Ten. Simmons felt his play was killing himself and the team. The low point came the previous week in a 32-point loss at Wisconsin.
“The Wisconsin game in Wisconsin hit me hard,” Simmons said. “That was the worst I’ve played in my life. The way I was playing I didn’t even deserve to play at the high school level. I was letting my team down and I knew it.
“After the Wisconsin trip I came back and didn’t go to sleep until 5 a.m. and got right back up and went to church. (Coach Dan Monson) says you have to look in the mirror and judge yourself, and I looked in the mirror and saw I was letting myself down.”
So at about 3 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, Simmons couldn’t stand it anymore.
“I felt like I was playing like horse crap,” Simmons said, “so I called coach Monson at home. I bet he was very surprised. Then coach Monson and coach Peterson told me that the team responds off Terrance Simmons. When Terrance gets going and gets the crowd hyped and motivated, then the team follows.”
Without going into details about the conversation, Monson said it was basically, “Just reaffirming our faith in each other.”
It was a faith that Terrance had lost in himself.
In many ways, it would be hard to blame him. Minnesota has no postseason after the Big Ten tournament in early March and there is still the swirl of further sanctions against the program.
The Gophers lost last year’s leadership in Quincy Lewis and Kevin Clark. Now the team’s franchise player is suspended indefinitely for academic problems.
With all the outside forces tugging on him, in addition to being the new starting point guard in a new system, Simmons didn’t want to be what he was supposed to be — a leader.
“A lot of people forget, but if you think about it, this is really my first year playing basketball,” Simmons said. “My first year at LSU I didn’t really play, last year I really didn’t play at all and this is my first year going. I knew the team responded off Terrance Simmons, but I didn’t want to know.”
But he was able to turn things around. He single-handedly brought the Gophers within reach in the second half on the road against Illinois. Although Minnesota lost 73-59, Simmons finished with 17 points, four rebounds and five assists. Then he scored 14 points in a buzzer-beating loss to the Badgers on Feb. 5.
Now, without Joel Przybilla for who-knows-how-long and John-Blair Bickerstaff out for the rest of the season, teammates are counting on Terrance to swallow an even bigger piece of the emotional pie.
“He was in the same position I was, not getting many minutes,” said forward Dusty Rychart. “With J.B. down he has become the new emotional leader.”
Three weeks ago, Simmons would have internally denied Rychart’s notion. Now, perhaps in honor of Bickerstaff, Simmons’ “emotional other half,” this new point guard, is ready to raise his game along with the roof.
“The first thing he said to me after the Indiana game, which kind of regarded that conversation, was, ‘I didn’t play good tonight coach, but we won,'” Monson said. “To me that’s a sign of maturity and him understanding what the value of being a point guard on this team is.”

Mark Heller covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]