There was a seminal moment last summer that didn’t receive much fanfare, but it may have impacted the decision of power forward Austin Nichols (Memphis, Tenn./Briarcrest) in a big way.
Nichols, ranked No. 12 in the ESPN 100, was poised to make the USA U-18 National Team. Not only was he going to make the squad that was to play in the world championships in Brazil, he was going to play heavy minutes. Nichols tried out for the team but took himself out of contention for a final roster spot because he wasn’t ready to be that far from home yet.
Nichols had a final list of Tennessee, Memphis, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Duke and Virginia. Prior to tidying up his list, at least one major program opted to stop recruiting Nichols because it feared he wasn’t going far from home. They took notice of the decision regarding USA Basketball and surmised while they may get Nichols, the risk of losing valuable time didn't outweigh the reward. They figured he would remain close to home. At that point, staying close to home meant Tennessee or Vanderbilt.
On Monday, Nichols committed to hometown Memphis. A few months ago, the Tigers weren’t a likely destination. “There were people telling us not to worry about Memphis because he won’t go there,” one assistant coach said. “The school we were worried about was Tennessee.”
There was good reason to. Nichols’ twin sister is enrolled at Tennessee. The Vols were always going to be strong for that reason, and when the USA Basketball decision was made, count me as one of those folks who thought Tennessee’s position was strengthened.
The day before Memphis’ Midnight Madness, I received a text saying Nichols was visiting his hometown school unofficially. Honestly, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I remember thinking to myself how unlikely it would be that he’d pick Memphis and figured he was just visiting for the experience. A little less than three weeks later, Nichols is a Tiger.
In the end, Nichols did stay home. His addition to the Tigers' lineup is significant. There simply aren’t many bigs in this class who can score in the low post. Nichols is an efficient big man whom you can run an offense through. He’s got skill in the lane, takes care of his area and is reliable.
Memphis could use a guy like Nichols; everyone could. Tarik Black is a bullish forward, but not as big or as skilled as Nichols. He’ll be a senior when Nichols arrives. Memphis will have a year of Black, Shaq Goodwin and Nichols. That’s a dynamic frontcourt in which each player owns different strengths. As the Tigers switch from Conference USA to the Big East, they’re now well equipped on the inside, the area most difficult to fortify yet critical to success in an upper-echelon league.