Sykora provides spark for UMD men's basketball team
Minnesota Duluth senior guard Jordan Nuness was asked where his team would be without junior Brian Sykora. Nuness shook his head and said, "Without Sykora? That's a good question. I don't know. Probably not too hot." UMD has struggled with injuri...
Minnesota Duluth senior guard Jordan Nuness was asked where his team would be without junior Brian Sykora.
Nuness shook his head and said, "Without Sykora? That's a good question. I don't know. Probably not too hot."
UMD has struggled with injuries, but when healthy, the Bulldogs have shown they can be a team to reckon with. A big reason is Sykora, who transferred to Duluth last fall after a standout season at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College. Sykora gives the Bulldogs (7-8) hope going into the North Central Conference season, which begins at 8 p.m. Thursday at Romano Gym against Minnesota State-Mankato (10-4).
The NCC has been described as a small-college version of the Big Ten, with tough, physical play being the norm.
"I'm anxious to see what the conference has to offer," said Sykora, who is averaging 16.3 points and a team-high 7.5 rebounds. "From what the coaches and players tell me, the NCC is much more physical, which I'm more inclined to play. That fits my style."
Sykora has been the steady post presence UMD has needed this season after the loss of all-conference performer Bryan Foss to graduation and center John Vaudreuil to a season-ending knee injury.
With versatile offensive moves, Sykora is equally adept at driving to the hoop or knocking down a turnaround jumper. At times he looks like a man among boys on the court, and in a way, he is. At 24 years old, Sykora isn't your average college junior.
"Brian can score in the post against the big men, or he can draw them outside and drive on them with his quickness," UMD coach Gary Holquist said. "He's really a tough matchup, but more than that, Brian is a great person. He has really brought an element of leadership and maturity to this team."
With bushy, brown eyebrows and a buzz cut, Sykora looks like he could pass for the younger brother of UMD volleyball coach Jim Boos, who goes with a similar hairdo. But Sykora's game is all hoops. The 6-foot-7 power forward was recruited out of Bloomington (Minn.) Jefferson High School in the Twin Cities to play tight end for the University of Minnesota, where his older brother played football. After a year with the Gophers, he knew his heart was with basketball.
"I gave football a shot but just wasn't in love with it," Sykora said. "I'm just glad I still have an opportunity to play basketball. Coach Holquist sold me on the program, and all the guys on the team have been really welcoming."
Sykora is an early childhood studies major at UMD who took time off from school and worked at two Bloomington elementary schools for about 18 months before enrolling at Scottsdale. Last winter he earned all-region honors after averaging 19.9 points and 7.5 rebounds for the Fighting Artichokes. Even so, nobody knew exactly how well Sykora's game would translate to the Division II level.
"I went against Brian in high school, but I am a little surprised by how well he has done. I didn't know if it would be this fast, this soon," said Nuness, of Eden Prairie, Minn. "But I knew he was a competitor and was very relentless, so I expected him to come in and produce."
About the only things that have slowed Sykora have been injuries and foul trouble, and UMD will need him to stay on the court if they expect to win in the conference. While he has slimmed down from 270 to about 210 pounds, Sykora still has some of that football ruggedness in him, which can lead to foul trouble. He has also been hobbled by an ankle injury.
When healthy, Sykora is capable of a 30-point game and scored 24 in a 76-73 victory over Minnesota Crookston on Dec. 11. The Bulldogs haven't won since, losing five straight, but should be in better shape once Sykora and point guard Jordan Schade return to health. At full strength, UMD came a buzzer-beater away from beating Winona State, last year's Division II runner-up.
"We just need to get healthy and get back to our winning ways," Sykora said. "We've had some ups and downs, so hopefully we'll pick it back up for conference play. That is what's important. Like Coach Holquist said at practice: 'We're all back to zero and zero.' "
JON NOWACKI covers college sports for the News Tribune. He can be reached weeknights at (218) 723-5305 or by e-mail at email@example.com .