Illinois had a rough go of it last year: missing the tournament for a third straight season, finishing with a losing record for the first time under John Groce and really struggling to score the basketball (they ranked #143 in AdjO, according to KenPom).
Unlike some of the other bottom feeders, we could see a relatively quick turnaround back to 20 wins. Jalen Coleman-Lands is coming off a broken shooting hand, but figures to be ready to go. BTPowerhouse’s #5 player in the Big Ten, Malcolm Hill, could explode for 30 on any given night. Three big men up front will protect the rim.
But one player with a big ol’ question mark is Kipper Nichols.
Nichols played his last basketball game almost two years ago in the Ohio state semifinals as a member of Lakewood’s St. Edward. The year before that, as a junior, he helped the Eagles win their second state championship while averaging almost 19 points and 5 boards a game.
In April of last year, he signed to play basketball with Tulane but was given a release for undisclosed personal reasons before ever suiting up to play. He signed with Illinois in December but the NCAA, being their usual Orwellian selves, declared him ineligible to play until December of this year.
The end result is Nichols literally been waiting to play meaningful basketball for a year and won't be able to start the season when the Illini tip against Missouri State on Friday. He’ll miss the first 11 games and will finally be eligible against BYU on December 17th, just in time for the Big Ten season.
But you won’t hear him complaining.
“I come out and I play with a chip on my shoulder,” Nichols said. “I like to compete. I’m a guy that’s happy whenever the rest of the team does well.”
He’s saying all the right things for someone who will miss most of the non-con. But if one reads the tea leaves from this Groce quote, from this summer’s News Gazette, how well the Illini do may end up depending a little bit on Nichols himself.
“I would say, clearly, at this point he’s exceeded my expectations and our staff’s expectations. . .One of the things I will tell you is he has the respect of his teammates because of how hard he works. He is one of those guys that goes above and beyond. He’s in here constantly. He reminds me of (Malcolm Hill) in that way.”
Comparisons to Malcolm Hill, at least physically, are apt. At 6’6”, 225 pounds, Nichols can play the wing position behind Hill, or even play alongside him if Groce elects to go small. Illinois is sneaky big; the team is flying under the radar and will start two players, Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke, at 6’10”, with Malcolm Hill a 6’6” small forward. If they can vary their looks, they’ll pose match-ups problems for most of the conference.
Who knows what this season will bring for Nichols. A solid 3-star recruit ranked at 270 in the country by 247Sports two years ago, there are no real expectations for him, which should give Nicholas tons of opportunity for learning and growth. He doesn’t need to start, he won’t need to play big minutes, but the Illini will be looking for him to provide some necessary athleticism off the bench.
He probably won’t be a high impact player and that’s just fine. But if Kipper Nichols is already exceeding expectations, then grooming him to replace Malcolm Hill’s productivity down the line will keep Illinois a tough team to encounter this season.