Nichols steps his game up


Ethan Scholl

Kipper Nichols recorded his first start this season in Illinois’ 91-60 blowout win over Rutgers on Tuesday, January 30.

By Will Gerard, Staff Writer

Freshman point guard Trent Frazier may have awoken the Illinois offense late in the first half against Rutgers, but sophomore forward Kipper Nichols was another player who demonstrated his ability to have a long-term impact on the program moving forward.

Nichols performed well for the Illini over the prior two games, and as a result, he earned himself a spot in the starting lineup over freshman guard and former Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith, who has struggled to adjust to the competition in the Big Ten.

The new starter, on the other hand, earned high praise from his first-year head coach following a 31-point margin of victory Tuesday night.

“He’s a guy that’s the ultimate mismatch,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “You can do a lot of things with him based on matchups, and we’d like to get to that point with him.”

His sudden, and rather unexpected, second-half scoring outburst and a career-high 27 points in an 87-74 loss to a far athletically superior No. 6 Michigan State squad may have been the turning point for him this season.

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“The one thing that Kipper has proven he can do is make shots,” Underwood said. “He made five threes against Michigan State, so it gives us space, and you have to account for that.”

Nichols got off to a strong start against Rutgers when he finished a putback layup on a missed free throw from junior forward Leron Black. He proceeded to flash his athleticism again minutes later on a drive to the basket, which resulted in a smooth and-one opportunity for the Cleveland native.

Tuesday’s start was the second of his young Illini career. His first career start occurred at home against Penn State last season.

Nichols originally committed to Tulane out of high school, but he requested a release from the program in September 2015 before committing to John Groce’s staff at Illinois two months later. He was forced to sit out both the spring and fall semester, as per NCAA transfer rules.

His presence in the starting five adds much-needed height and versatility to a group that has shown an inability to match up against bigger, stronger competition.

Nichols not only gives the Illini additional size in the post, but he also demonstrates the skill set necessary to one day become an elite-level wing player.

Against Michigan State, upon receiving a pass at the top of the key, Nichols made a defender fall to the floor on a jab-step, and earlier in the game he soared to the hoop for a two-handed putback slam.

When Nichols plays the small forward position, it gives him the opportunity to feed the ball to Black, which hasn’t happened much this season because the pair had rarely seen the floor together.

“It’s super fun playing with Leron,” Nichols said. “He draws a lot of attention, so that frees me up, and you know, vice-versa.”

Underwood also praised Nichols for both his effort and intelligence on defense during Tuesday’s rout, and according to Underwood, it was a major step forward for the big man.

“There’s a dimension that he brings to our team,” Underwood said. “When Kipper does the little things – we all know he can make some baskets and grab some rebounds – when he starts doing the other things, his game will go to a whole other level. He made a couple great rotations, which he hadn’t been making. He got on the top side and stole a pass on a post-up, which he hadn’t been (doing) because he was always late and behind, and then he took a charge. Those are some simple things that he’s grasping.”

Yet, it was not long ago that Nichols found himself in Underwood’s doghouse for repeated lackluster performances on the floor.

During a four-game stretch in which Illinois played against New Mexico State, Missouri, Grand Canyon and Minnesota, Nichols averaged just 2.75 points and 1.75 rebounds per game, which was well below his current average of 9.8 points and 4.5 rebounds.

Following a 62-58 victory over Grand Canyon on Dec. 30, Underwood spoke about how he planned to “sit down and have a talk” with Nichols to discuss his role on the team and how he wasn’t quite meeting his potential.

“His teammates have to trust him, and I’m not quite sure that’s all there to be very honest,” Underwood said. “We need Kipper, and he can help us.”

While it’s unclear exactly what was said during that particular exchange, it’s apparent Nichols has now finally emerged as a key contributor with just eight games left in conference play.


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