TOBIN: Bad look for Nichols, Virginia
Fans have not hyped up a single player on the Virginia men’s basketball team more than they have junior Austin Nichols. As a forward at Memphis, he was selected as the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year for the 2013-14 season and placed third in the nation with his 3.4 blocks per game in the following season.
Unfortunately, with such high expectations for Nichols, fans will have to wait for his debut. Last week, the team announced that it had suspended Nichols for two preseason exhibition games and the first game of the season on the basis of violating team rules.
Suspensions happen all the time in the realm of college sports, and this suspension should not change the expected victorious outcome of Virginia’s season opener against UNC-Greensboro Nov. 11. But this suspension does not help set the tone for a new-look Virginia team.
It will be hard for the Cavaliers to replicate the magic they had from last season. Earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reaching the Elite Eight — a feat that has not been accomplished for the team since 1995 — Virginia had one of the best years in school history.
Three staples of that historic team — guard Malcolm Brogdon, forward Anthony Gill and center Mike Tobey — all graduated after the season, leaving Virginia with a void that needed to be filled. That is where Nichols comes in.
At 6-foot-9, Nichols effectively steps into the big-man role that Gill and Tobey left open. Here, Nichols can help Virginia continue the success of coach Tony Bennett’s famed pack line defense. His blocking ability is similar to that of former player Darion Atkins.
If Nichols turns out to be as good as Atkins in denying people in the paint, it is a very good sign for the Cavaliers — Atkins received the Lefty Driesell National Defensive Player of the Year award for his performance in the 2014-15 season.
Not only does Nichols fill the void on defense, but he has also proven his ability to score. Leading Memphis with 13.3 points per game in his sophomore year, Nichols, like Gill, can be extremely versatile in the paint in finding his way to the basket. This offensive prowess will be extremely important to the success of Virginia as its top two leading scorers of last season — Brogdon and Gill, respectively — are not around anymore to carry the scoring mantle.
Yet, regardless of how much potential Nichols has, none of it matters if he is not playing in games. Aside from being a cohesive unit last year, the 2015-2016 Virginia basketball team also proved its ability to be disciplined both on and off the court. In fact, no players were suspended at any time last season. With this in mind, it should not be comforting at all for Virginia fans to hear that the team’s new star broke team rules and received a suspension before the season even started.
Additionally, this suspension doesn’t give Virginia a chance to fully set the tone for the season and send the rest of the country a message. Ranked at No. 8 in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll, Virginia is starting off this season ranked three slots lower than last year. This first game could be Virginia’s chance to prove it should have been ranked higher to start the season. Yet, without Nichols, the Cavaliers do not have as much firepower to send this message.
What perhaps is most damaging about this suspension, though, is that it delays Virginia’s ability to click early on in the season. Sure, the Cavaliers aren’t exactly playing the toughest opponents early on. But in the world of college basketball where upsets are ubiquitous, anything can happen. Just ask George Washington’s team last year — a team that beat the then-No. 5 Cavaliers in only the second game of the season. Without Nichols in the lineup for the remainder of the preseason and the beginning of the regular season, there is a higher risk of an early upset.
Nichols’ suspension is not the end of the world. Virginia should be able to win its season opener, and Nichols should come back and fulfill his potential as a star on both the offensive and the defensive sides of the ball. However, this suspension certainly is not good. Hopefully, it is not a sign of things to come.
Editor’s note: Redshirt freshman forward Mamadi Diakite was also suspended for the season opener due to an initial evaluation of amateurism conducted by the NCAA and Virginia in the fall of 2015.
Ben Tobin is a weekly sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TobinBen.