Joel Barndt and Jeremy Nicolas are both prominent basketball players for Rocky Mountain College, but they certainly aren’t cut from the same cloth.
“Jeremy and I are absolute opposites when it comes to personality,” said Barndt, a 6-foot-9 senior forward for the Battlin’ Bears. “I am very loud and obnoxious. Jeremy is very quiet and reserved.”
They are, however, an incredibly productive pairing for Rocky.
They are roommates whenever the Bears hit the road — and they find watching episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants to be a relaxing part of their pregame ritual.
They are also superbly efficient when it comes to terrorizing the opposition from underneath the basket or from behind the 3-point arc.
“When those two are playing to their strengths and playing their best basketball, we are definitely a lot tougher to beat,” Rocky coach Bill Dreikosen said of the powerful 1-2 punch his 4-5 combination can unleash.
Barndt, who is from Billings, and Nicolas, a 6-6 senior center from France, will be on the court together again Wednesday morning at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo., when No. 10-ranked Rocky (23-7) takes on No. 24 Cumberlands, Ky., (19-11) in a first-round game at the NAIA championship tournament at 9:45 a.m. (Mountain time).
When Rocky won the national championship in 2009, the Bears prospered behind the inside duo of Devin Uskoski and Anthony Allen.
“We rode those guys for a lot of games,” Dreikosen said. “We’ve been riding these two guys, too, for a lot of games.”
This will be the second consecutive appearance at nationals for the Bears’ latest skilled and coordinated big men.
Barndt and Nicolas run the floor well, man the post, create their own shots inside and out — and they’re also looking to be tourney titans.
“Joel wants to win a ring,” said Nicolas, who speaks English with a heavy French accent. “I want to win a ring.”
After losing to Lindsey Wilson, Ky., 84-79 during the first round at nationals last year, “we stayed an extra week and watched other teams succeed and other teams in our league succeed, so that kept us hungry and motivated all offseason,” Barndt said.
Ninth-seeded Rocky, which swept the Frontier Conference regular season and postseason tournament titles this season in history-making fashion, is definitely a legitimate contender at the 32-team national tournament with the likes of first-team all-Frontier performers Barndt and Nicolas in its lineup.
“You need pillars like that to be able to create a successful, winning year,” Dreikosen said. “But in both cases, they know they don’t have to carry the whole load.
“They know they’ve got good guards and good guys coming off the bench.”
Statistically, the versatile Barndt is averaging 17.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game for Rocky this season. Nicolas, who usually finds the paint to be packed when he is under the basket, is close behind at 16.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per outing.
Nicolas is also shooting 86 percent from the foul line.
“At the end of the day, Jeremy is not about liking you for your personality, or if you’re his style,” Barndt said. “It’s more, does he respect you. That comes first. From there, I think, we’ve got a pretty good friendship going.”
No question, Barndt is the emotional leader of the Bears. Nicolas, without a doubt, is Rocky’s most serious player.
“Jeremy is all business and I really appreciate that when it comes down to who you want in your foxhole,” Barndt said. “Jeremy is definitely the guy.”
“What I like is when we have to go play basketball we’re on the same page,” Nicolas said. “It’s not time to talk, it’s not time to make some joke. We know we have to win the game.”
And for that, give SpongeBob SquarePants an assist.
“It relaxes your mind,” Barndt said of their favorite cartoon. “You don’t have to think too much.”
Rocky, which is averaging 88.8 points per game, has enjoyed a lot of success by working the ball into Nicolas, who would either elude double- and triple-teams with his patented spin move for a layup or kick the ball back outside to an open teammate.
“I like to play off him as much as I possibly can,” Barndt said. “Every time I get it on the wing, I’m looking to give him the ball first in a place where he can score.
“He’s our most efficient player and he’s the most efficient player in the conference, so why not give him the ball as much as we possibly can.”
That goes for both the paint and the perimeter.
Barndt, who is in his fourth season with the Bears, has drilled 32 3-pointers this season, while Nicolas, who transferred from Miles Community College last season, has also stepped outside on occasion to make 61 percent of his 3-point attempts (14 of 23).
“I don’t think too much of one thing is a good thing,” Barndt said of the duo’s diversity. “I think you have to keep the defenses on their toes.”
While Barndt was running around last week, scrambling to print out information on Cumberlands for his teammates, Nicolas was being his usual stoic self.
“Of course I’m excited,” he said. “I will be more excited after we’ve won the national tournament. I will let myself go.”
“We’re having a lot of fun,” Barndt said. “I hope the best is yet to come.”