40-Minute Man

A new iron man has emerged for West Virginia, one that can – and likely will – again play 40 minutes against No. 2 UCLA on Saturday just three days after a full game versus the sixth-ranked team in the nation.

It reads like a daunting task. With backup point guard Joe Mazzulla limited by a deep thigh bruise suffered four games ago in a win over Marshall, Darris Nichols has missed just five minutes in the last four games. And with the true freshman still favoring the left leg and lacking the health and mobility to make hard cuts, Nichols is expected to put in 80 minutes in two games against top 10 foes.

Rule of thumb states benches should be getting slightly longer instead of shorter this time of year. But while some players, including both Mazzulla and Devan Bawinkel, are twiddling theirs during games while trying to overcome injuries, Nichols has played at least 38 minutes in the last six outings and a full 40 minutes in half of those. He is averaging a team-high 33.3 minutes per contest, a number which increases to 36.8 per game in conference play and ranks 11th-most in the individual player stats.

It would reason that the point guard would be losing his legs, fatiguing faster and not getting either the elevation or strength needed from the limbs to sink shots, play defense or scramble to lose balls. Yet Nichols appears to be showing no effects – of yet. The junior was on the floor for 40 minutes against Pitt, but made half of his four shots and tallied three assists against stifling man defense. He has made 17 of 36 shots (47.2 percent) over those last six games, just below his season average of 47.7 percent, and handled a variety of tight man, zone and junk defenses effectively.

"I'm in the best shape of my life," he said. "I feel really good. With all those media timeouts and breaks, it's really not that bad. I don't even notice it."

The junior has been especially fine down the stretch of games. He hit a pull-up 3-pointer off a fast break from the left wing during West Virginia's 10-0 run that pulled it back into the game against Pitt. He made 10 of 10 free throws versus Seton Hall, eight of which came down the stretch to seal the win. In all, he has made his last 13 foul shots and last missed three games ago against Rutgers. In the last six games, he has three misses in 27 shots and managed to remain the league leader in assist-to-turnover ratio, hardly the stuff of a player losing his.

"My legs feel good. I am getting rest off the court and away from practices," Nichols said. "You have to be smart and not try to do too much, in games and off the floor. It's eating right and getting enough sleep and all the little things."

The loss of Bawinkel has further hindered the backcourt. An injury elsewhere, like at forward with its added depth, for example, might have been more easily overcome because of the solid play of Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith. But of now, the Mountaineers will enter this weekend with two scholarship guards – Nichols and starter Alex Ruoff – and walk-on Ted Talkington, who has provided above-average play over nine minutes in three of the four games since Marshall. He did not appear against Rutgers. But Ruoff has struggled in handling the ball, and WVU lacks a do-all player like Joe Herber, one that could bring the ball upcourt and man multiple slots. So it will fall on Nichols to do so when West Virginia plays its toughest two-game stretch rank-wise since it defeated No. 5 Kentucky and No. 1 North Carolina – which was on a 36-game winning streak and had captured the national title the previous year – in consecutive days in Lexington in Dec. of 1957.

"We have to go and get after it," Nichols said. "The last game was over. We'll move on quickly and get ready for UCLA, all of us. We can't change anything, so you have to focus on what you can do."

Thus far, that's proving to be a lot more than most expected from Nichols.

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