By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Rarely in a remarkable 2013-14 men’s basketball season did Virginia play better than in its second NCAA tournament game. In Raleigh, N.C., the ACC champion Cavaliers pounded the Memphis Tigers 78-60 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 19 years.
Among those who marveled at UVa’s performance at PNC Arena was Austin Nichols, a 6-9 forward who led Memphis with 15 points (on 7-for-12 shooting) that night. Having been recruited by the Wahoos in high school, Nichols was already familiar with head coach Tony Bennett and many of Virginia’s players and staff members.
“I think Coach Bennett is the best defensive coach in the nation,” Nichols recalled, “and just the way they operate, the way his bigs double the [opponent’s] bigs, the way they play on offense and defense, really interested me.”
Some 17 months later, Nichols is part of the program he admired so much. He transferred last month from Memphis to UVa, where he’ll have two years of eligibility after sitting out the coming season.
“It’s been going great,” Nichols said recently at John Paul Jones Arena. “When I came here on my official visit [in late July], I instantly knew that I would be accepted [by the rest of the team], and hanging out with the guys has been a great experience.”
Gill and Thompson also arrived at Virginia as transfers: the former in 2012 after one year at South Carolina, the latter in 2014 after one year at Tennessee. As they had with Nichols, the `Hoos recruited Gill and Thompson when they were in high school.
“We’re not just going to take a kid [simply because he’s talented],” associate head coach Ron Sanchez said. “We’re going to do our character check and all those things. For us to get a transfer, for the most part it’s usually going to be a guy that we do know. We do know his family. We do know what’s important to them. We have a built-in relationship where we’re not going to be surprised by any off-the-court things with them, which is also very important in bringing the right transfer into your program.”
Nichols, who turns 21 this month, lives in Collierville, Tenn., about 30 miles southeast of Memphis, the city where he was born. As a senior at Briarcrest Christian School, he committed to Memphis, largely because of its proximity to his family.
“If I didn’t want to stay home and if I didn’t feel the need to have to stay home, I would have come to Virginia,” Nichols said.
This is his first time living far away from his parents and Memphis, but that hasn’t been an issue for Nichols, whose twin sister, Ashley, attends the University of Tennessee.
“I’m more mature now than I was when I made my decision [in high school], and I’m not homesick,” he said. “I was more homesick at Memphis, being 30 minutes down the road from my parents, than I am here.”
It helps that Nichols has teammates at UVa from such diverse places as New Zealand (Jack Salt), Canada (Marial Shayok), California (Perrantes), Georgia (Malcolm Brogdon, Isaiah Wilkins, Evan Nolte, Justice Bartley), Massachusetts (Jarred Reuter), New York (Mike Tobey), North Carolina (Gill, Caid Kirven) and Tennessee (Thompson).
“Jack’s from halfway across the world, and London’s from Los Angeles,” Nichols said, “and I think I can just relate to them, and they can relate to me.”
The Gatorade player of the year in Tennessee as a Briarcrest Christian senior, Nichols was the American Athletic Conference’s rookie of the year as a Memphis freshman in 2013-14, when he averaged 9.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots per game.
As a sophomore, he led the Tigers in scoring (13.3 ppg) and blocked shots (3.4) and also averaged 6.1 rebounds per game. Nichols was named to the All-AAC first team. Still, he said, his experience at Memphis was not what he hoped it would be, and in early July he asked to be released from his scholarship.
“That’s what my heart was telling me to do,” Nichols said, “and I felt like it would help me grow as a player, and on and off the court it would help me mature more.”
With his parents and his sister, Nichols visited UVa in late July, after which he saw no need to tour any other schools.
“When I was leaving, I knew it was home,” Nichols said. “Home away from home was here. I loved all the teammates, the coaching staff, how they operated everything here. I just knew it was the place for me.”
The prospect of playing for Bennett, whose team has won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles, appealed to Nichols. So did the opportunity to work with Mike Curtis, UVa’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball. Curtis held that post with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies for six seasons before returning to college hoops.
“If I have to sit out one year and get better, I want to do it with the best,” Nichols said, “and Mike Curtis, with everything he does — stretches, working out, building muscle, losing weight — he just does it 100 percent. That really caught my eye, and that’s just one of the positives of coming to Virginia.”
Nichols weighs around 230 pounds.”Coach Curtis said he wants me to get around 235 by the time I get to play [in 2016],” Nichols said, “and I think both of our goals are to not only get me bigger, but more importantly get me stronger, get me ready. Get me quicker and more agile, laterally in my hips and everything. I have a full year to reach that, and I’ll be ready to go by the time I do play.”
By choosing to transfer and sit out a year, Nichols showed he’s willing “to take a step backward so he can take a step forward,” Sanchez said. “I think he really wants to spend a lot of time in the physical development area. He also wants to hone some of his skills.
“From my communication with him, he feels that he has a skill set from 15 to 19 feet out, and he wants to really spend some time working on that. And physically there’s some areas that he feels like he’s weak in. So I think spending time with Mike Curtis in the weight room for 12 months before he has to play a game — probably more than that, actually — will help Austin.”
Three of the Cavaliers’ big men — Gill, Tobey and Nolte — are seniors this year, so Nichols is likely to play a major role in 2016-17.
Still, he said, “I would have come here either way. I’m not greedy with minutes. I’m a team player. I like to win. If I play five minutes a game and we get a win, that’s all that matters, really. It was just another positive in my eyes.”
On the court, Sanchez said, Nichols combines many of the attributes of the 6-8 Darion Atkins, who as a senior last season anchored the Cavaliers’ defense, and the 7-0 Tobey.
“Darion obviously could get to balls and impact shots defensively,” Sanchez said. “Maybe he didn’t block it, but he altered shots. I think Austin has that skill set. As far as Mike Tobey, he has a left-hand and a right-hand hook, and Austin kind of has that. Mike has that 15-foot, 17-foot jump shot. I think Austin also has that. And then in the post he’s so long. Darion had this incredible wingspan. Austin’s arms are very long and he can do things that impact the game because of his length, and his hands are very, very big as well.”
Nichols moved to Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago, and one of his first official functions as a Cavalier was the annual softball game between the team’s players and its coaches. For the third straight year, the players prevailed, this time in a 29-27 shootout.
“I told all my teammates, `The last time I played any sort of baseball was T-ball, so I don’t know how good I’ll be,’ ” Nichols said, laughing. “I tried to hit some home runs. I couldn’t, but I had some RBIs, and then Tobey hit a home run, a game-winner, so that was pretty fun. It was a great experience.”
Skill-development sessions have begun for the Cavaliers, who return a talented nucleus of players from the team that finished 30-4 in 2014-15. Virginia’s first full-team workout is Sept. 15. Even though Nichols’ UVa debut won’t come until next year, his presence in practice should help the team tremendously.
“I remember us having to guard Darius on ball screens last year preparing for certain teams,” Sanchez said. “When you’ve got a high-level guy that you can practice against every single day, it sharpens you. They say iron sharpens iron, and I don’t think we can get a better interior presence for Anthony to go against, and Mike Tobey to go against, and vice versa. Austin will improve because of the challenge that those guys are going to provide for him.”