Leading The Way

Senior point guard Darris Nichols is ready to lead the Mountaineer men's basketball team. Under the direction of new head coach Bob Huggins, the athletic playmaker could be poised for his best year in blue and gold.

You have to admit that Nichols certainly seems like a quintessential Huggins point guard. The Radford, Va. native is perhaps West Virginia's most athletic player, and without question is its most experienced. Nichols has played in the postseason for each of his first three years in Morgantown, and has no intentions of slowing down as a senior.

If the Mountaineers are indeed intent on heading back to the NCAA Tournament (or even the NIT), they will do so with their veteran floor general leading the way on both ends of the court.

"We are going to give Darris the ball," Huggins said on Thursday. "He will be in charge of running things for us. The biggest thing for him defensively is he will be at the point rather than being at the basket in the 1-3-1. He is going to start everything offensively and defensively."

Added Nichols, "He already told me that he always wants the ball in my hands. That says a lot about how he feels about me, and that will give me a lot more confidence."

Not that the senior lacks confidence by any stretch of the imagination. In his first full season as a starter, Nichols averaged nearly 11 points per game in addition to handing out 165 assists. What's even more impressive is the fact that, despite playing a team-best 1,251 minutes last season, Darris turned the ball over just 48 times.

As the team's starting point guard, Nichols is also its de-facto leader on the court. With all of the other questions surrounding the team entering preseason practice, one thing is for sure: this is Darris Nichols's team.

"I felt it was my team last year, but me and Jamie (Smalligan) are the only two seniors this year," he said. The freshmen and sophomores have been asking me a lot of things, but in a way I'm kind of like a freshman now too. This is a whole new experience for me."

Not that that's a bad thing. In fact, the up-tempo style of Huggins seems to be tailor-made for Nichols, what with his ability to finish in traffic and smart decision-making. Perhaps the biggest advantage Darris will gain under the new system will be the ability to create and make plays as he pleases.

In the structured, sometimes methodical offense of former head coach John Beilein, each series was something of a choose your own adventure. Yes, the point guard had options, but one of those options was not to take matters into his own hands. At times this season, Nichols will be able to do just that.

Of course that's not to say that Nichols will suddenly turn each possession into his own personal And-1 MixTape.

"I'm really not going to change my game," he said. "(Coach Huggins) already told me that I'm going to have a lot more freedom, and that I'll be able to show my decision-making a lot more. This summer I've just concentrated on improving every small aspect of my game."

Another difference under Huggins is his emphasis on strength and physicality. Again, it's not as if the Mountaineers never lifted weights under Beilein. In fact they did, both before and during the season. That being said, Huggins admittedly inherited a team that was not exactly overwhelming from a strength standpoint. Leading up to the season, Nichols and his teammates have been working hard in the weight room, with each player now stronger than they were prior to summer workouts.

"With Coach Huggins, it's a big emphasis because it transfers more to the court," he said. That's how his teams play: physical.

"We're going to be undersized, but we've been undersized every year. We're going to have to be a lot more physical with teams, because the Big East is a physical conference. That's how we're going to win games, by outworking other teams."

There is no doubt that Huggins will win plenty of games at his alma mater. As for this season's expectations, there simply are none, at least on the surface.

"I really don't go into the season with expectations or anything like that," noted Nichols. "People will always predict us as one of the bottom teams in the Big East, and that really doesn't bother me. Every year we've finished higher than expected. I really don't set expectations, I just try to win every game.

"I'm really excited because I'll get to actually play my game and go up and down, as well as penetrating and getting my teammates involved," he concluded. "I think it's going to be a lot different."

It certainly will be. At times, it may even look ugly. But for everything that has and will change with the transition to a new era of Mountaineer basketball, Darris Nichols will continue to be a constant source of leadership and playmaking on the court. And with more freedom to use his athleticism and involve his teammates, there is certainly reason to believe that this year will be the best yet for West Virginia's senior floor general.


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