CEDAR FALLS — Few Division I basketball recruits would have envied the situation Tywhon Pickford put himself in two years ago.
Then a high school junior, the Minneapolis native was becoming a coveted prospect following a fast start at Maple Grove High School, with his stock reaching peak levels following a 31-point effort against defending Class AAAA state champion Maple Valley.
But what looked like a coming out party became the last game Pickford played that season, thanks to an off-the-court freak accident.
Just days after his impressive showing against Apple Valley, Pickford and some friends found themselves in a rowdy mood at the end of the school day.
“We were just play fighting,” he says. “Just messing around, being immature.”
But what started as a seemingly harmless bit of teenage horseplay quickly took a dark turn. While grappling with a friend, Pickford landed awkwardly on his left leg.
After a few minutes on the ground, he attempted to stand, only to discover he couldn’t put any weight on a throbbing knee. Friends quickly took a panicked Pickford to the trainer’s room, where he feared the worst.
Those fears were realized the next day, when a trip to a specialist revealed that he’d suffered a torn meniscus, an injury that required season-ending surgery.
The ensuing weeks were a time of great frustration for Pickford, who admits he initially had a hard time focusing on rehab as his teammates took the court without him.
But the defeated attitude didn’t last long. While always excited about being viewed as a viable Division I recruit, Pickford says he didn’t take it as seriously as he should have.
And after already capturing the attention of DI scouts, he saw no reason to think he couldn’t come back and do it again.
“That probably was the best thing that happened to me,” he said of the injury. “It improved my work ethic and motivation to be better.”
Much to the chagrin of coaches in the Minneapolis area, the layoff also seemed to improve his game.
Fully recovered by the start of preseason workouts, he finished his senior year averaging 20.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks while leading Maple Grove to the state tournament.
That performance, as well as a strong showing on the postseason travel circuit, also reignited interest in Pickford on the recruiting trail, with numerous programs, including power-conference schools like Colorado and Clemson, taking notice.
But by the time bigger names came calling, he had already found a cozier place to call home.
In order to meet a self-imposed commitment deadline of April 25, Pickford wanted to sign somewhere he knew he’d have a well-defined role. He found that at Northern Iowa, which he says “felt like home as soon as I got there.”
A little over nine months later, neither he nor UNI staffers have any complaints about his decision.
In one of the more difficult seasons in recent memory for the program, Pickford has been a bright spot. A starter for all 24 games, he currently ranks second on the Panthers in scoring at 10.3 points a contest.
While making his presence felt on the offensive end, Pickford’s biggest impact has come on the glass, where he quickly developed into one of the best rebounders in the Missouri Valley Conference. At just 6-foot-4, Pickford ranks second in the Valley and in the top-100 in the country with 8.2 rebounds per game.
That rebounding prowess was established early, as he grabbed nine or more boards in seven of his first eight games. The highlight came in a nationally televised win over North Carolina State, where he recorded an 18-point, 18-rebound double-double.
Pickford’s performance has led a complete turnaround on the glass for UNI. The 10th-worst rebounding team in the country last season (-7.3/game), the Panthers hold a +0.7 rebounding edge this season.
It’s also helped him etch his name among the best freshman rebounders in both UNI and MVC history.
With at least six games left, Pickford is 10 rebounds shy of breaking Eric Coleman’s freshman record of 205. At his current pace, he would become just the third Panther to record 1,000 career rebounds, something that hasn’t been done at UNI since 1964.
“That’s a big deal,” Coach Ben Jacobson said. “You’re talking about a lot of guys and a lot of years when you look at the numbers and where Ty’s gotten to and where’s he going to be when this season ends, it’s been terrific.”
Pickford is also on pace to have the fifth-best rebounding season by a freshman in Valley history.
The current top-five includes former NBA veterans of 11 (Cliff Levingston) and 16 years (Benoit Benjamin) as well as current NBA player and former Naismith Award winner Doug McDermott, who are all anywhere from four to eight inches taller than Pickford.
While Pickford insists “there’s really no secret” to his success, those who’ve coached him say it’s the result of an innate ability that comes from a great attention to detail.
“He knows where the ball is going before it goes there,” says Nick Schroeder, who coached Pickford at Maple Grove. “He just has a sense of it. He can follow it, he can track it. He has a great nose for the flight of the ball.”
It’s that fight that has many, Pickford included, believing he hasn’t even scratched the surface during his promising rookie campaign.
And while he wants more from himself, the freshman guard says breaking the UNI freshman rebound record would prove to be a satisfying start to what he hopes will be a great career.
“Coming here, something I wanted to do was leave a mark,” he said. “And that would be something big I could start off with.”
Pickford’s first crack at breaking Coleman’s record comes Wednesday, when the Panthers host Bradley. He pulled down eight boards in a Dec. 31 game against the Braves.