|Former Mountaineer guard Darris Nichols was in town recently taking part in the Bob Huggins Fantasy Camp.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Perhaps the best characteristic of John Beilein’s West Virginia teams was the basketball IQs of the players that he had.
That is becoming even more evident with the large number of players from Beilein’s WVU teams still involved in the game today in some capacity.
There is his son, Patrick, now the head coach at West Virginia Wesleyan. One of Patrick’s assistant coaches at Wesleyan is former Mountaineer teammate Frank Young.
Rob Summers was appointed Urbana’s head coach earlier this spring, Joe Mazzulla is a Division II assistant coach at Fairmont State while Mike Gansey, who once cut his teeth in the NBA Developmental League, has become a rising star in the player development ranks working for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And then there is Darris Nichols, who also continues to make a steady climb up the coaching ladder, first at Division II Northern Kentucky two years ago and then at Division I Wofford last year. Now, Nichols has scaled another rung when he was named assistant coach at Louisiana Tech earlier this week.
“Growing up you always wanted to play basketball forever,” says Nichols of his decision to get into the coaching profession. “You think you’re going to play until you’re 40 years old like Tim Duncan and live the good life, but it didn’t happen like that. Now I’m on a new path. I go to work every day enjoying every minute of it.”
Nichols got the best of both worlds during his Mountaineer basketball career, spending his first three seasons with Beilein and then his final year with Bob Huggins. That’s two hall of fame-caliber coaches with enough knowledge and wisdom to make even Einstein’s head spin.
“Looking back on it, it was a blessing being able to play for both coaches,” said Nichols, in town in early June for Huggins’ annual fantasy camp. “Those are two of the best in the game and two who are total opposites.”
Opposites, Nichols says, with one major exception.
“Playing for both of them I realized it’s all about how you get possessions and how you don’t lose possessions,” he explained. “With Huggs, his big thing is about rebounding the ball – offensive glass and things like that. With Beilein, it’s about not turning the ball over. The thing I really learned from both of them is ‘how are you going to get extra possessions?’”
Nichols was a solid four-year player for the Mountaineers who had his best two seasons as a junior for Beilein in 2007 and as a senior for Huggins in 2008. Nichols hit the winning shot to beat Mississippi State in the NIT semifinals before the Mountaineers knocked off Clemson two days later in the championship game.
He also played a big role in two great victories over UCLA - one at famed Pauley Pavilion in 2006 and then again in Morgantown in 2007 when the Bruins were ranked No. 2 in the country. But Nichols says his fondest memory came in the 2005 NCAA tournament during his freshman year when the Mountaineers upset second-seeded Wake Forest, a team many thought was talented enough to win it all that year.
“I remember we came out in those horrible uniforms,” laughed Nichols, shaking his head. “Most of them didn’t fit us – they were just hanging off us. I remember our shooting shirts we had rubber bands on them to keep them from falling off of us. We came out on the floor and (the Wake Forest players) just looked at us like, ‘We can’t lose to these guys.’”
And that was before West Virginia’s walking tattoo-parlor Kevin Pittsnogle began launching scud missiles from Lake Erie and its rail-thin wing Mike Gansey was soaring toward the rim the way Evel Knievel once did before he missed the ramp at Caesar’s Palace.
Counting those two overtimes, it will forever rank among the most enjoyable 3½ hours of basketball that any Mountaineer fan will ever see.
“Going in there and beating Wake Forest was my favorite moment,” admitted Nichols.
That was one of ours, too.
Nichols says most of his memories involve things that occurred away from the floor, such as Beilein’s insistence on his players running the mile under a certain time during preseason practice – 5:20 for the guards and 5:45 for the bigs, he still remembers.
“We’re running on the track one day and Frank Young passes out,” Nichols laughed. “I don’t remember so much the games, but I do remember the funny stories like that.”
These days, Nichols is out looking for the next Darris Nichols in a gym somewhere around the country. Once again, he can draw from his experiences playing for two of the game’s master coaches when it comes to evaluating talent.
“Obviously I want to see if they can play, but one of the things I look at is when a kid checks out of a game,” Nichols explained. “There are two things – when you come out of a game it’s either because you’re tired or you’ve done something wrong. How does the kid handle adversity, especially when he’s tired and he is messing up? If a kid can take criticism then he’s usually going to get better.”
Another big red flag for Nichols is a player who jumps from team to team. These days, college basketball players are transferring to other schools at an unprecedented rate and in the short time he’s been in coaching it’s something he’s had to get a handle on the same way he has had to learn how to break down a matchup zone defense.
“During the season sometimes – not all of the time – you can kind of get a feel for it,” Nichols said. “Is this kid thinking about leaving? Sometimes you know it’s not the right situation.”
A lot of people point to AAU basketball as the primary culprit for kids these days transferring at such a high rate, but Nichols says it probably goes much deeper than that.
“In the microwave society that we live in they want it faster,” he said.
Nichols added, “It seems like everything is organized but unorganized (with AAU basketball). I’m a college basketball coach and I’m a fan of AAU basketball, but you’ve got AAU teams that are organized but then if a kid is not getting playing time here he can go to play on another team.
“I grew up playing on the blacktop. I think the best evaluation is peer evaluation, so if I’m on the playground and I’ve got next I’m evaluating everybody and if you’re not good enough to help me win, then I’m not picking you to play with me,” he said.
As a player and now as a coach, Nichols has only been involved with winning basketball teams. At West Virginia he played on an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16 squads - and the one team that didn’t make the NCAA tournament ended up winning the NIT.
Two years ago at Northern Kentucky, his team won 23 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament, and then last year he helped Wofford win the Southern Conference and reach the NCAA tournament where the Terriers fell to Nichols’ old ball coach.
“It was exciting,” said Nichols of matching wits with Beilein. “During the open practice I talked to him a little bit. We probably spoke for about five minutes and I got to say hello to his wife. In this business, we don’t get to see each other that often so saying hello for a few minutes was pretty cool.”
Nichols also doesn’t get a chance to catch up with his old team as much as he would like, but whenever he doesn’t have a scout to do or something going on with his team, he’s in front of the TV watching the Mountaineers.
“I will shoot Huggs a text after games sometimes because this is home to me,” he said. “(West Virginia University) is a big part of me. It’s important that I try to follow what’s going on.”
Mountaineer fans everywhere will also continue to follow Nichols’ rapid ascent in the collegiate basketball ranks.