January 17, 2013

From out of nowhere, Barden has become Bears' leader


GREELEY -- Rebounding is not always a glorious aspect of basketball. A good rebound isn't as aesthetically pleasing as a high-arching jumper or a seeing-eye bounce pass, but its importance to a team's success has never been debated.

A good rebounding team often controls the game's tempo and can give its offense more possessions through good work on the offensive glass.

Being a good rebounder involves doing the dirty work of banging inside for position, boxing out and constantly maneuvering to grab any wayward shot. In short, rebounding takes a workmanlike mentality, and, luckily for Northern Colorado's men's basketball program, Derrick Barden brings his hard hat and lunch pail to work every day.

For Bears fans, Barden entered this season as an unknown. A transfer from Odessa Junior College in Texas, the junior forward entered the Northern Colorado program this year and found himself immediately thrust into action as he started the season opener against Southwest and all but one other game this season for the Bears through the end of the 2012 calendar year.

While fans may have not known who Barden was in that opening win over Southwest, it didn't take long for them to pick up what was so special about him. Against Southwest, Barden finished with 12 points and five rebounds in just 17 minutes of action.

The next game, Barden's first road test in a Northern Colorado uniform, he showed off how good he could be on the glass as he pulled down a team-high nine rebounds against Cal Poly. That game against the Mustangs marked the first time Barden led the team in rebounding, but it certainly won't be his last.

At the time of publication, Barden had already led the team in rebounding eight times with his best game on the boards coming in a tough 85-77 home loss to Montana, the defending Big Sky champions. In that game, his third-career double-double, Barden scored a team-leading and career-high 21 points and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds.

That night's rebounding effort ranked as the third-highest rebound total of any Big Sky player in a single game this season. Those 14 rebounds were also the most of any Bear since Mike Proctor ripped down 17 boards last January against Northern Arizona.

It's fitting that Barden's name has already been linked with Proctor, as it is Proctor's role as a workhorse down low that head coach B.J. Hill was hoping Barden would fill when he decided to join the Bears last summer.

While Proctor's production was impressive—he left the Northern Colorado program as its sixth-leading career rebounder—the early results appear to prove that Barden is up to the task.

"Anytime you're able to get a guy who you feel can step in and fill a role—obviously with losing Mike [Proctor], I think Mike finished as the fifth-leading rebounder in the conference last year—we knew we had some shoes to fill," Hill says. "So anytime you think you can fill and maybe surpass that need, you're obviously very excited as a coach.

"That's what I thought we would be able to do with Derrick, is fill Mike's shoes rebounding and maybe be able to give us a little more on the offensive end, and that's what he's been able to do."

Knowing that Proctor's departure after last season would open up a need for rebounding, Hill and his staff set out to find a player they could bring in to immediately contribute. They hit the jackpot when they signed Barden after his career at Odessa.

During his two years with the Wranglers, Barden established himself as one of the premier junior college players in the nation. In his second season at Odessa, he was named to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) All-America Third Team. That year he averaged nearly 20 points per game and 12 rebounds per game.

During his first season with the Wranglers, he led the nation by averaging five offensive rebounds per contest.

He was twice named National Junior College Player of the Week and, perhaps most impressively, left Odessa as just the second player in school history to record more than 1,000 career points and 500 career rebounds.

That fact is made even more impressive considering the only other player to have such a career at Odessa: former UNLV star and No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Larry Johnson.

To go along with the many individual accolades Barden garnered at Odessa, his Wranglers also experienced plenty of team success as they were ranked in the national NJCAA top five during his final season.

Barden's journey to Northern Colorado has indeed been a unique one as the Detroit, Mich., native left his home up north for a totally different, not to mention warmer, climate in Odessa.

"I had never been to Texas so I wanted to see what a new environment was like," Barden says. "I liked it there. It was small—very small—but I liked the weather. It was so cold in Detroit."

Before Odessa, Barden was a prep star for Denby High School in Detroit, where he averaged 21 points per game and seven rebounds. Perhaps the highlight of his career at Denby came during a regional final matchup against No. 2-ranked Pershing, who came into the game with a 22-3 record.

Pershing was led by current Michigan State star Keith Appling, but it was Denby who pulled off the upset behind Barden's 20 points and 13 rebounds.

"That was a great experience playing against Keith Appling," Barden says. "He is very talented, and Pershing had a good team, but we got the win and that was huge for us."

It was at Denby that Barden began cultivating himself into a relentless rebounder. A lot of that motivation came intrinsically, but he says his father, Derrick Barden Sr., had a lot to do with his basketball path, too.

The elder Barden played basketball at Fresno State from 1986 to 1989 and played much the same way his son does now for the Bears. Barden Sr.'s name is, in fact, still included in the Fresno State record books, where he sits in third on the career blocks list (132) and 10th on the rebounding list (670).

"My dad always wanted me to be like him and play basketball," Barden says. "He definitely influenced me, and I did want to be like him, but I also wanted to create my own path and not follow completely in his footsteps.

"I started really chasing down rebounds in the 12th grade, and then that's when I became the rebound king at Odessa. Now, I'm just trying to carry that over to my time with UNC."

After putting up numbers like Barden did during his time at Odessa, it was obvious he was going to have a number of schools competing for his attention. Fortunately for the Bears, Northern Colorado assistant coach Logan Bean had a relationship with the coaching staff at Odessa and that helped seal Barden's commitment to come to Greeley.

"[Northern Colorado] just feels like home," Barden says. "They treat me like family and I love it here. On my visit they treated me like I was already on the team, and that was a big reason for me coming here. When I was still at Odessa, I had a visit scheduled here, but I had plane problems and couldn't go, so that day Coach Hill flew down to Odessa to come see me. That meant a lot."

Hill says he knew getting Barden to come to Greeley was a priority for his program.

"When you recruit guys and you let them know they are a priority to you, all you want back are guys who appreciate that and their actions show that they appreciate that," Hill says. "Logan did a great job of recruiting Derrick, but as a head coach you have to decide which kids to put your time into because you can't put it into everybody.

"You want the kids who are going to reciprocate that attention, and when I saw that out of Derrick, I think that helped build our relationship right away and help secure that commitment from him."

Once Barden arrived in Greeley, it was clear he had both the ability and attitude to play at the NCAA Division I level. It didn't take long for the other Northern Colorado players to take notice.

"He's just an all-around animal," Northern Colorado redshirt-junior Connor Osborne says. "He's 6-foot-5, but you wouldn't think he's 6-5—he doesn't play like he's 6-5, he plays like he's 6-8. I definitely think that's a pick up for all of us. When he's got that high motor, and he's moving, I think that gets everybody going."

His constant motor and tenacious effort has had an effect on the team, as it forces everyone to play up to his level even during practice.

"I'm kind of waiting for the others to take on his mentality and his work ethic and desire," Hill says. "We've got some guys who are very talented in our frontcourt, but they don't play with the hunger that Derrick plays with. If they did, they would be really hard to guard. That's the best thing about him: you just know what you're going to get from Derrick. As a coach, you know what you're going to get. You know what type of effort and energy you're going to get."

Now that the Bears are past their nonconference schedule and into the Big Sky portion of the season, it's clear that Barden is getting even better as he adjusts to the pace of play at the Division I level. Over the Bears' first six Big Sky contests, Barden 15 points per game and 10 rebounds per contest. Through those first six conference games, he tied for the Big Sky lead in rebounding.

During that six-game stretch, his offense really began falling into place, as well. He led the team in scoring and rebounding in four of those first six Big Sky games. The last two games of that stretch, against Montana State and Montana, were arguably Barden's best as he posted back-to-back double-doubles while averaging almost 18 points per game and 13 rebounds per game.

For the season, Barden was leading all starters with 56 percent shooting from the field.

"I'm getting comfortable now, playing at the Division I level," Barden says. "At first, I wasn't used to how fast we played because we liked a lot slower pace at Odessa, but now I'm feeling more comfortable. I get a lot of my points off of chased down rebounds and garbage buckets. Sometimes I'll get a wide open shot and I'm not afraid to take it."

Hill says one of the best aspects of Barden's offensive game is his ability to post up hard every time. This allows him to gain position down low and use his length and explosive athletic ability to get buckets around the rim.

"This is usually about the time the junior college guys start to feel comfortable," Hill says. "It usually takes a semester, sometimes it takes longer. It usually takes longer for the guys who aren't as open to coaching, but that's the best thing I can say about Derrick is how open he has been, how receptive he's been, to coaching, even though he came in with the accolades of being a junior college All-American. He's been really open to receiving coaching to make himself a better player."

The thought of Barden improving even more is perhaps a scary one indeed for the rest of the Big Sky, as he is already the conference's third-leading rebounder.

Now, with Big Sky play in full swing and Northern Colorado having played its first four conference games on the road, Barden and the rest of the Bears are excited to get home and play in front of a friendly Butler-Hancock crowd.

"I'm excited just to play with this team and try to win a Big Sky championship," Barden says. "It's been tough on the road games with the crowd yelling and talking trash, but now that we're coming home, hopefully we can gain some momentum."