Nichols has started the season off slowly, and his uneven play has been one of the reasons for West Virginia's struggles in the middle portions of games. Always reluctant to shoot (he has the mentality of a point guard, according to head coach John Beilein), Nichols has disappeared at some junctures while on the floor, which is not ideal for a guard being called upon to run the offense. Nichols admits it has been a rough start, but that he felt better during WVU's win over the Retrievers.
"I felt a little more comfortable out there tonight," the sophomore guard said. "Earlier this season I wasn't playing with a lot of confidence. I just felt more confident, tonight, and I think I had a better game."
The seeds of that improved play were sown after Nichols' 0-6 performance against Washington & Jefferson, a game in which he obviously didn't shoot well, but did do many other things to the coaches' liking.
"All the coaches told me I played well – I just didn't shoot well," the Virginia native said of last Saturday's contest. There's a difference between the two. I just need to keep listening to them in practice and do what they tell me to do. I did a lot of things well in that game, and the coaches told me they want me to shoot more in games and get comfortable out there."
Head coach John Beilein echoes those sentiments.
"We've talked to him and encouraged him to shoot the ball more," Beilein explained. "His brother only shoots the ball when he has it at Wofford, and we told him we want him to be like that a little more. Just catch it and if you're open, let it fly. He's been playing in our extra sessions with the guys that don't get a lot of time, and we've been working on that."
Nichols' first shot against UMBC didn't show the hoped-for confidence, as it was a hesitant, off-balance attempt that was badly off target. Admitting that he didn't "shoot it to make it", Nichols was determined to do better after intermission.
"I knew I needed to come out with confidence in the second half," he explained. "During halftime, I was thinking all my teammates have confidence in me, so I need to have it in myself. That's how I tried to play in the second half."
Some observers believe that moving between the one and two guard spots might be affecting the still-learning Nichols, but he discounts that notion.
"It's not difficult," he said of manning both positions. "The one and two are pretty much the same in this offense. It's no different playing with J.D. or Pat."
One thing that is helping Nichols through the rough patch is the support of his teammates.
"I have a lot of friends on different teams around the country, and they don't have camaraderie like we do on this team," said Nichols of the boost he gets from his teammates. "That helps a lot."
Also helping is more direction from the coaching staff, which noticed that Nichols has resorted to simply driving rather than mixing in fakes and looking for his jump shot. Film review of the St. Bonaventure game revealed one Bonnie player faking a shot on ten different instances before driving to the hoop, and the WVU coaches have used cutups of those sequences as a teaching tool for Nichols. The staff wants Nichols to not only take his open shot opportunities, but also use shot fakes to get defenders off balance so he can utilize his quickness on drives.
Nichols is the subject of such in-season tutoring because he is a vital cog in West Virginia's hopes of returning to the NCAA. The offense has broken down at times this year when Collins and Joe Herber leave the floor, and that's something the Mountaineers can ill-afford to bear, especially with the Big East season less than a month away. A comfortable, confident Nichols that takes available shots and presses the defense will make a huge difference in WVU's quest to return to the Big Dance.
Nichols bounds straight up and releases the ball quickly. As it hits nothing but net, both the bench and the crowd respond. Head coach John Beilein allows himself a small smile before turning his attention to WVU's next defensive effort, and the implications are clear. If Nichols can shoot and play with that level of confidence, West Virginia will be primed for another post-season run.