CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood heaped some real praise on Kipper Nichols when practices started in earnest for the 2019-20 season.
The Illinois men’s basketball coach saw his most veteran player — the only redshirt senior on the roster — turning in consistent performances. Hearing that type of praise even secondhand struck a chord with Nichols.
“He said that? My guy,” Nichols said with his almost ever-present smile. “All jokes aside, I’ve been taking a lot of pride in that because that’s something you can control. You can’t control when shots are going in.
“The best shooters in the world, throughout the game, it’s rare to make half your shots — to shoot 50 percent. That’s something you can control is your effort and your energy and just passion as far as competing and trying to win every day. I’ve been definitely putting an emphasis on that.”
Illinois (1-0) needs that consistent, productive Nichols to return now as much as ever heading into Friday’s 8 p.m. tip at Grand Canyon (0-1). Tevian Jones’ indefinite suspension, coupled with both Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson having to sit this season after transferring into the program in August, leaves the Illini a little thin on the wing. That freshman forward Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk isn’t fully ready for a large role off the bench only elevates Illinois’ need for Nichols to play more like he did against Iowa in the 2018 Big Ten tournament or how he did in a four-game stretch last December than the zero points, two rebounds and three turnovers he had during Tuesday night’s 78-70 season-opening overtime home win against Nicholls State.
“I’ve got to continually challenge Kipper,” Underwood said. “We need Kipper on the glass helping us rebound. We’ll keep working.
“I’m looking for as much productivity off the bench as I do our starting five. You want some punch. You want some value when you’re coming off the bench. Kipper’s a guy that’s had big moments and had a lot of success. He’s also a guy that’s not going to be all worked up and nervous and uptight. We feel really positive about that right now.”
Nichols knows his Illinois career has featured as many ups and downs as any of his teammates. He knows last season’s inconsistencies was a step back after he finished the 2017-18 season scoring in double figures in nine of his final 16 games and dropping 31 points on the Hawkeyes at Madison Square Garden.It’s all tied to confidence. Nichols’ waned last season.“In the early days of this preseason and the season, I think I’ve worn that on my sleeve,” he said. “Definitely. I’m coming in with a chip on my shoulder every day knowing what I’ve been through and what it takes.
“I think confidence is a big part of anybody’s game. I think the game of basketball is 80 to 90 percent confidence. We come out here, work out every day, get shots (and) watch film. We do everything a high-level player does on a day-to-day basis. Once you get confidence, relative to anything, I think you can have a lot of success.”
Underwood wants Nichols to succeed. That’s why this Illinois coaching staff has pushed him so much in the past two-plus seasons. Nichols’ lead up to the 2019-20 season was a positive in Underwood’s opinion. Overall, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward has locked in better defensively and had efficient moments offensively.
“That’s getting to be the Kipper that we expect to see,” Underwood said. “He’s a young man that spends a lot of time in the gym, works extremely hard, (is) on track to graduate (and) does all the things that our locker room is about.
“I think the maturity of our group overall has helped him. He’s helped that become more mature. He’s acting like a fifth-year senior, and that’s really positive.”