CHAMPAIGN -- In the domain of college basketball, there are few secrets within a team when December rolls around.
Teams develop their identity after a month into the season. Between practice, team meals, film session, hotel stays, games and hanging out off the floor, players see each other for what seems like every waking hour.
It starts during summer workouts -- meeting back on campus weeks later for the start of fall semester and into the season.
Routine. Familiarity. Habits. Even the 'new guys' aren't so new after months of integration.
And then there is Illini redshirt freshman Kipper Nichols. His name combined with his chiseled 6-foot-6 frame spark intrigue -- such that continues to circle in Champaign sitting less than a week from the start of fall practice.
But just as that intrigue remains, so does much of that mystery. The mystery from last November when Nichols was unconventionally introduced by head coach John Groce during the Signing Day press conference.
"He has joined us," Groce said responding to a question about Nichols.
No public commitment. No list. No mention on the press release. Untraceable.
In December, Nichols arrived on campus and walked out on the court at Ubben one day. His teammates knew little about him, other than his resemblance to Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler.
Nine months later, it's no longer a mystery on the inside when it comes to Nichols. He's earned the respect of his teammates with his ability, work ethic and competitiveness. The buzz about Nichols around the program has been positive from the get-go, and it has continued to build.
Nichols has looked very good in recent open gyms. He physically developed even more over the offseason. He's officially part of the team's DNA.
But on the outside, he's still just a storybook character. Someone people have read about and heard about but not actually seen. Second-hand accounts have allowed the fan base piece together the profile to an extent, but they're still hungry for more.
Nichols is ready to uncover the mystery.
"I'm just excited to play. Obviously, you know I haven't played a game of college basketball yet," Nichols said. "I'm just excited to get in the swing of things, get involved with my team and get down to winning games."
The waiting game
After sitting out all of last season, the wait for Nichols extended out even further last month when the NCAA ruled him ineligible for the first semester due to transfer rules. Nichols' complicated situation included a brief stint at Tulane in the summer of 2015 before receiving his release that fall, and he later signed with the Illini.
For Nichols, it is an odd state of affairs. As a hooper, all you do in high school is play games. You play games throughout the high school season. A few weeks later, you're playing AAU games. Then, back with your high school team in June for summer league games. Back to AAU after that.
But this Cleveland native hasn't played in a real game since March 2015 during the state tournament Final Four at Ohio State.
"It feels like forever ago," Nichols said. "It's crazy. It's so crazy."
There's no question that Nichols was disappointed in the NCAA's ruling to keep him out the first 11 games of this season.
"It's been kind of tough. But I'm a firm believer in God and that he does everything for a reason," Nichols said. "Right now, I believe I'm right where I'm supposed to be. Whenever my name is called, I know I'm going to be ready."
On Dec. 17 at the United Center in Chicago, Nichols will get to put on the Illini jersey and actually leave his seat on the bench in a matchup against BYU.
"It's going to be a blessing," he said. "I'm going to feel awesome and be ready to go to war with my team."
Ten days later, Nichols and the Illini will head out to Maryland for their Big Ten opener. In between that will be a rivalry battle with Missouri and a few days off for Christmas. Talk about a chestnut being thrown into the open fire.
But Nichols can't wait to finally play on the Big Ten stage -- one that he always watched closely back in Ohio.
"I'm super excited. A lot of my friends go to schools in Big Ten country. A couple of my friends play for different teams in the Big Ten," he said. "So I'm excited to compete with them and play all of the top competition every night."
Luckily for Nichols, he will be well prepared from playing against Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Malcolm Hill on a daily basis in practice.
"I've been guarding Malcolm a lot in open gyms and practice," Nichols said. "That matchup right there has gotten both of us better. I think we've both benefited from that."
Hill has seen quite a bit from his talented teammate over the last nine months.
"I've just seen him growing and learning the game. He's got a good skill set. Kind of similar to me a little bit. Mid-range specialist. Likes to post the ball," Hill said. "Potential-wise, the only person that can stop him is him, honestly. I feel like he works really hard and he's dedicated. Once he figures out the mind part of the game, he'll be really good."
Nichols has made sure to study his practice counterpart, who has already registered 78 starts, returns as the Big Ten's leading scorer and participated in the USA Basketball combine over the summer.
"Watching him and how he analyzes the game and breaks down defenses -- stuff like that -- I think I've picked up on that and I think it's helping me," Nichols said.
What can he bring this year -- one that is already surrounded by expectations for Groce's staff and a veteran-laden roster?
"He could be an added scorer once he figures out the offense," Hill said. "But also just a guy that does a lot of dirty work. He's strong and physical, and he loves to defend."
Nichols doesn't look like your typical freshman. Freshmen are supposed to be boys that you shape into men. When it comes to physically shaping, Nichols had the 'grown' look from the moment he stepped on campus.
He looks like the hard-hitting safety you want to put in pads. As a team, the Illini made huge strides in the weight room this summer. Head strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher didn't disappoint in showcasing his value. Nichols was, of course, one of his shining examples.
"Fletch is awesome, man," Nichols said. "He's got all our guys looking like body-builders right now. If you came in the gym, you might not think we were a basketball team. That's been great. I think that's benefited us all on the court by being able to do things that you need physicality for."
Physicality is the name of the game for Nichols. He hasn't played a game for Illinois, and he's already part of their recruiting pitch.
The Illini hosted four-star wing Abu Kigab for an official visit earlier this month, and Kigab brought up Nichols as a tangible part of Illinois' sell.
"If I come to Illinois, I know I'm going to develop," Kigab told IlliniInquirer.com. "I see it with their guys. Like my man, Kip. He came in bench pressing 185 like five times. Five months later, he's benching 185 21 times."
"22...Get that on record," Nichols said.
His bench press isn't all that's improved.
"I think all areas of my game have gotten better since I've been here. I've been working on everything that comes with being a good player, which for me, means being able to take whatever the defense gives you and playing good defense," Nichols said. "I think I bring a lot of versatility to both ends of the floor. I think I can guard multiple positions on defense, and on offense, I can abuse mismatches."
One of the guys
Each player has their own defined role on the court, but fitting in off the court carries importance within the inner workings of team chemistry. Nichols has done just fine in that area.
"I think I've meshed with the team well. We've got a great group of guys that are all close together," he said. "I think that's part of the reason we'll be really good this year."
Nichols has taken a role as one of the comedic entertainers on the team.
"He's always just full of jokes," Thorne said. "He has the locker room laughing. He's a comedy show every day."
"He definitely is. He always has jokes," Hill said. "He's definitely one of the funniest, and definitely one of the loudest at all times. Really goofy."
What makes him so funny?
"It's just Kipper being Kipper," Hill said.
But he did add that Nichols loves to use his comedic genius through the team text group.
"If we're in our team group chat, he'll find a picture of us from 10 years ago or five years ago and make a funny caption about it," Hill said. "He does that on a pretty consistent basis."
Nichols also loves to insert look-alike pictures of his teammates.
"I feel like I kind of started that and everybody just took that and ran with it. It's a thing now. It's big-time," he said. "If you send a good look-alike picture and get some laughing faces back, you did a good job and boosted that rep a little bit."
Does anyone give it back to him?
"Evey now and then people will tease him," Thorne said. "But he's so good about joking with people that it's kind of hard to get him."
The true sign of comedic strength. Nichols is a big fan of Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle and Will Ferrell. He also loves him some Chipotle.
He keeps it simple with a smile always cracked from cheek to cheek.
"I just like to be around the guys and laugh all day," Nichols said. "I eat a lot of Chipotle. The gym, Chipotle and laughing with the guys. That's me."
Soon enough, the Illini fan base will have the mystery solved on the court. And based on his ability and the bizarre route that fortuitously landed him in Champaign, they'll be the ones smiling before too long.