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CHAMPAIGN — Kipper Nichols is keeping a big picture perspective as he embarks on the final season of his college basketball career.
“Man, I know my Apple Music account is going to cost a little bit more,” the Illinois redshirt junior joked. “I’m not going to lie. That’s the only thing I’ve thought about so far.”
It isn’t. Not really. Nichols understands the opportunity his final season with the Illini presents, and his approach is to take whatever the next eight-plus months throws his way in stride daily.
“I think, more than anything, I’m learning to appreciate being in the moment realizing this is my last year of college basketball and trying to have as much fun as I can while still trying to learn every day,” Nichols said. “I want to be a student of the game every day and also give good energy where it’s needed — give it to the other guys — and be a vessel of what’s good.”
The middle of July, though, is too early in Nichols’ estimation to talk expectations. The Cleveland native makes clear, though, any expectation he sets for himself for the 2019-20 season will be higher than anyone else’s. The latter has received a serious bump this offseason, with fans seemingly more invested in Illinois’ potential than in several seasons.
“I want to build up and go into the season with a lot of fortitude — mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” Nichols said. “With regard to anything in life if you can take that approach you’ll be alright. I just want to be the best version of myself on and off the court.”
That’s the crux of the conversation. Nichols uses the word “awful” to describe his 2018-19 season. His best version seemed to bloom in early December with a run of four games where he averaged 14 points and 5.5 rebounds and shot 43 percent from three-point range.
Nichols scored in double figures just once more in the final 22 games of the season. That included a five-game stretch in January where he failed to scored a single point in 52 minutes of playing time. That he followed that swoon with an 18-point, six-rebound game against Nebraska proved to be an aberration. He averaged just thee points in the final 11 games of the season.
“I use it as motivation,” Nichols said. “In anything in life, I don’t think you ever fail if you don’t give up. You either learn or you win. Ultimately, it was a learning experience for me and something I think I can grow from and therefore, as a result, be a better player.
“It’s definitely motivation. The standard I hold for myself, it’s something I wouldn’t like to see happen again. I can’t let it happen again.”
Nichols has battled inconsistent production throughout his time at Illinois. The highs have been sky high, including a 31-point game at Madison Square Garden in the 2018 Big Ten tournament. The lows? Just as low.
The offseason scuttlebutt from the fan base this offseason and last turned into when — not if — the 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward would move on to a different program. He wouldn’t have been alone taking that path. Nearly 1,000 players transferred during or after the 2018-19 season — a number that’s just as high in college baseball and at least twice as high in college football.
Nichols didn’t transfer. He stayed at Illinois instead and faced his inconsistency and struggles.
“I would consider myself different from a lot of those guys,” he said. “I think in life, man, ultimately what you run away from you run into again. I don’t think you can run away from your problems. I don’t think you can escape them. I think you have to face them head on.
“That’s when you can be successful and grow as a person. You can’t avoid it. You’ve got to run toward the pain. You’ve got to run toward the trials and tribulations in order to grow and become the best version of yourself you can. I think it was the best thing for me with everything I’ve been through in the last couple years I’ve been here in school.”
That sense of purpose was instilled in Nichols by his mother, Tanicia Porter. He didn’t hesitate a single second in saying exactly that.
“She’s always been a fighter, man, ever since I came out of her belly,” Nichols said with his ever-present smile. “She does so much. I could speak ad nauseam about the sacrifices she’s made and the things she’s had to do in order for her kids to be taken care of and to see myself and my brother be successful as individuals.”
Nichols said he’s spent this spring and summer working on all aspects of his game on the court.
“Everything,” he said with some emphasis, repeating the word again. But his offseason work has been more than just getting shots up.
“More than anything just the mental, cerebral aspect of the game,” Nichols continued about where he’s tried to make the most progress. “Really, I think, that’s more than anything where I have to grow. Mentally staying in the moment. Being the smartest basketball player I can be. I think everything else will take care of itself.”