Nichols' growth evident to Underwood, key for Illini

Nichols' growth evident to Underwood, key for Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Kipper Nichols capped his first full season at Illinois with the best game of his college career.

The 6-foot-6 forward put up 31 points in the Illini's Big Ten tournament loss to Iowa, knocking down 5 of 9 three-pointers in the process.

Nichols' full offensive game was on display in New York City at Madison Square Garden. Basketball's biggest stage wasn't too big.

Thinking back on Nichols' season-ending performance a month-plus later, Brad Underwood instead focused on the two charges the Cleveland native drew against the Hawkeyes.

That's what stood out the most for the Illinois coach.

"It's funny how that works," Underwood said. "You do some things defensively that are really good and that he hadn't done all year, and it just happens that the ball goes in. That's the way the game works."

Nichols lit up discussing the charges and the impression they made on Underwood.

"Two in like a minute," he said. "That was the highlight of the game for me."

Drawing those two charges highlighted Nichols' growth during the 2017-18 season.

It wasn't always smooth. Big moments, like the Madison Square Garden game and an offensive breakthrough at home against Michigan State a month before that, were often met with bouts of inconsistency and ineffectiveness.

Underwood and the Illinois coaching staff challenged Nichols throughout the entire season.

All Underwood wanted was for Nichols to be the "everyday guy" he made a priority from the first day he took the Illinois job.

"I challenged him to be better, and he got better," Underwood said. "I think he was a much, much better player at the end of the year than he was through — at both ends of the court. ... He's been off the chart this spring. We've seen a different mentality in Kipper."

Nichols said he's had time to reflect on this past season. The challenges from the coaching staff weren't always easy. He called that process "difficult most times" in the moment, but he said he's appreciative of the fact Underwood and Co. held him to a higher standard and demanded that of him.

"A lot of times I think they see something in me that I don't always see in myself," Nichols said. "Ultimately, that's the coaches' job is to get the most out of their players, and I'm looking forward to the rest of this journey and how that pans out."

Nichols averaged 10 points and 4.2 rebounds in the 2017-18 season. Underwood wants more. More rebounding. More trips to the free-throw line for a player that shot 86.2 percent at the line but only attempted 94 free throws on the season. Underwood would prefer that number double.

"That's a mentality and an aggressiveness and that's a weapon that takes a guy like Kipper who averages 10 points to 16 points," Underwood said. "He went through the gamut this year, but ... I think we'll continue to see a big jump from him from this year to next in his everyday approach.

"The tools are there. The everyday approach to, 'How good could I be?' is the one thing we're really pushing him on this spring."

Underwood sees utilizing Nichols in the same way he used Jacob Parker, Thomas Walkup and Clide Geffrard at Stephen F. Austin — players athletic enough to play on the wing but with a physicality that makes them a matchup problem.

"You look at those guys who could have been a 3 / 4 type guy — been able to play multiple positions — they've been really good for me," Underwood said. "Kipper's got all of those assets. ... Why not let him be our best post player? We already know he's a very capable three-point shooter.

"Let's expand and let's make Kipper the best basketball player. We don't need to label him with a position. Let's just make him a hell of a basketball player. That's the approach we're taking."

Nichols spent his spring working on all aspects of his game to take better advantage of how Underwood wants to use him in the Illinois offense. Versatility is valuable.

"This position-less basketball that Coach Underwood is trying to implement in our system is great," Nichols said. "But with that comes the work put in. ... I've always wanted to be, as a player, able to go out there and play and make reads and not have anybody say, 'We'll take this or that away from him.' It's pick your poison."

Getting to that point, Underwood said, necessitated a shift in mindset for Nichols. While he played half of the 2016-17 season after transferring in from Tulane, last year was his full foray into college basketball. Expectations were different then, and they'll change again for the coming season where Nichols will be one of the few veterans on an otherwise young team.

"There had to be a mental component of that change for him, and that's what we worked on this year," Underwood said. "You have to be a dog. You have to be an elite competitor. He's got the tools. I think that's where he grew a bunch last year."

Scott Richey can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter@srrichey.

-