Level of Play

You could count it – but usually only once per game. A quick burst of acceleration, some silky-smooth dribbles, a gravity-defying leap accompanied by impressive hang time, and then a soft shot that dropped through the hoop, or a slick pass that left defenders grasping at nothing while a teammate laid in an open shot.

The creator of this artistry? Darris Nichols.

The question for this year – can he do it more than once per game?

For whatever reason, Nichols, a gifted penetrator with a soft pull up jumper and the ability to get to the basket and score over taller, longer defenders, seemed unwilling to attack the hoop in that manner more frequently during his first two years as a Mountaineer. As a backup point guard, that was acceptable, but that won't be the case this coming season. For, in 2006-07, this will be Nichols' team to run.

Yes, I know that Frank Young will be the senior leader on this team. And his play, as well as his ability to mentor the incoming freshmen on the team, will be critical to WVU's success on the hardwood. However, there's no doubt that Nichols' play will be one of the deciding factors in how WVU's rebuilding year turns out. And for it to be a success – a winning record, perhaps an NIT bid – Nichols must be much more aggressive than he was while backing up J.D. Collins for the past two seasons.

As described above, Nichols has the ability to break down defenders off the dribble. Man-to-man, there won't be many defenders in the league quick enough to stay in front of him. Coming off WVU's patterned screens against zones, there likely won't be many able to cut down the creases created by the Mountaineer offense either. But if Nichols doesn't take advantage of those situations, the West Virginia offense will likely struggle to score points.

This shouldn't be taken as a knock on the rising junior. There are several reasons why Nichols may have passed up chances to penetrate with the ball in hand last year. WVU's offense, honed to a razor sharp point after hundreds of games and practices, sometimes created shots off the penetration of J.D. Collins – but that penetration was always done with a pass to a shooter behind the three-point line in mind. Many other sets led to backdoor cuts and midrange shots that didn't relay on classic point guard penetration. Thus, Nichols may have altered his strengths a bit to fit into that flow, and thus not disrupt the chemistry that existed when Collins was running the show.

Nichols, playing in the shadow of the Fundamental Five that led the resurgence of West Virginia basketball, also likely deferred to his senior teammates in many situations. While it would be unfair to say that Nichols simply stood and passed the ball to his teammates, there's no doubt that the seniors on the team, having earned their stripes, were more likely to shoot the ball – or have it passed to them by their teammates even though the underclassman might have had a shot or offensive opportunity himself. That's not to say that the seniors hogged the ball – simply that the guys with the most experience typically get the ball more. It's the same on any team, and while it's not a problem, it could certainly lead to a bit of a deferential play by the players still learning the system or finding their spot on the team.

All of that, however, is behind Nichols now. He has to be the steely-eyed veteran that runs the team and takes the ball in hand when the shot clock is winding down. It's the turn of incoming freshman Joe Mazzulla to take on Nichols' role -- an understudy who learns the offense, provides valuable rest time and keeps things steady while the upperclassman is out. But in the end, it's Nichols' time in spotlight. He has to be aggressive. He has to take the ball to the hoop and attack defenders. He has to make those hanging, twisting layups, or find an open cutting teammate at the last second. In short, he has to score 12 or 14 points per game, and dish out three or four assists off drives in order to help the Mountaineers make the transition from three-point launching team to something a bit more balanced.

There's no question that Nichols has the ability to get into the lane and either score or find a teammate for an open shot. He showed that ability in nearly every appearance he made last year. The question is, can he do it eight or ten times per game? And more importantly, does he have the temperament to do so?

While he wasn't a huge scoring threat, J.D. Collins exuded toughness and confidence on the court. He set the offense, played excellent defense at the bottom of the 1-3-1, and was a vastly underrated part of the last four WVU teams. Nichols, while physically more gifted than Collins, has yet to show those intangible qualities in those same measures. That's not to say he doesn't have them – just that we haven't seen them on a consistent basis yet. With Collins gone, now is the time. This is Nichols' team, and he will have to grasp the reins firmly to give WVU a fighting chance in the best college basketball conference in the country.

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