TOMORROW, VIRGINIA BASKETBALL RETURNS TO OUR LIVES. With one day remaining, it’s time to look at one of the new members of the team with possibly the biggest expectations: Austin Nichols.
Nichols, a transfer from Memphis, sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, but was relatively familiar with Tony Bennett and the Hoos before making his way to Charlottesville. Before deciding to remain close to home and attend Memphis University, Nichols was a primary target of Bennett and his staff. On top of that, the Hoos played Memphis in the 2014 NCAA tournament second round (third round if you use their weird rules from that year regarding the “First Four” or whatever), defeating the Tigers 78-60. Nichols - who was a freshman at the time - scored 15 points in the game, second best for either team and behind just UVA’s Joe Harris (#swoon).
In his first year, Nichols started all 34 games for Memphis and had himself an impressive season. He averaged 9.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 58.9% - a freshman single season record at Memphis - from the floor. He earned himself the title of All-American Athletic Conference (AAC) rookie of the year for his efforts on head coach Josh Pastner’s (yeah, the new Georgia Tech coach) team that finished the season 24-10.
As a sophomore, Nichols blossomed. He led his team in points per game with 13.3, blocks per game with 3.4, and rebounds per game with 6.1. His 3.4 rebounds per game ranked him third nationally. Oh, and he shot 22.2% from three. Just saying...not recommending anything. Nichols was named to the All-AAC first team. His sophomore season was cut short, however, due to a knee injury.
After a bizarre and drawn out transfer battle with Memphis, Nichols finally ended up with the Virginia staff that had pursued the highly ranked Colliersville, TN native initially. Duke, Kansas, Notre Dame and Wisconsin (among others) all vied for Nichols’s attention, but Bennett and the Hoos won out.
Now, after a year of supporting the team in practice and from the bench, Nichols is ready to contribute.
Although Nichols had a year with the defense during his red shirt season, he was mainly on the scout team which limited his experience playing the vaunted Pack Line. He clearly gets it though, saying at UVA’s Media Day, “I’ve never played in a defense that was this tough to understand at first. But once you get it, it’s all about being in the right positions, and when we’re all clicking on defense, I think that’s a pretty beautiful sight. Like I said, just gotta keep learning.”
If you think a good Pack Line is a pretty beautiful sight, we are going to be fast friends.
Nichols - combined with Mamadi Diakite - brings interior shot blocking back to the Cavaliers. Last season, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey weren’t necessarily the best defensive players on the floor, but provided a lot of offense. This season, Nichols should bring offensive ability (and a lot of it), but also give the Hoos a presence similar to an Akil Mitchell or Darion Atkins in the interior defense. With the departure of Malcolm Brogdon, I expect perimeter defense to take a dip, but the interior defense takes a step up with the addition of the SWAT team of Nichols and Diakite. Having a shot blocker gives Virginia a little leeway in the case that the Pack Line falters - think Justin Anderson-esque.
Nichols has had some lofty expectations hoisted upon him before ever stepping on the court under the lights at JPJ. Sports Illustrated has him as the No. 4 impact transfer for this season. USA Today has him on their list of impact transfers. Actually, just about every list includes Virginia’s new lengthy big man. NBCSports.com also named Nichols to their 2016-17 Preseason All-American Team.
Whew. That’s a lot.
First, however, Nichols will have to see the court. That unfortunately won’t be tomorrow night as Nichols is suspended from the first game due to an undisclosed violation of team rules.
The Hoos need production out of their front court if they hope to have any shot at returning to the Elite Eight or moving further in the NCAA tournament. The big man seems just the guy to do it.
Best: Team Dancer? (look on the far right at the end)
Not To Be Confused With: Actor Austin Nichols who starred on the CW hit series One Tree Hill
Tomorrow night, the Hoos tip off the 2016-2017 campaign at UNC-Greensboro at 7pm on ESPN3.