With West Virginia trailing St. John's late in regulation during Saturday's Big East regular season finale at Madison Square Garden and needing a win to help shore up its place on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, the most experienced Mountaineer could do nothing but sit and watch. For the first time in his remarkable career -- after 3,309 career minutes and 135 games played, both of which now stand as WVU records -- senior point guard Darris Nichols was in too much pain to take the court, at least for the rest of this game.
Nichols sprained an ankle early in Friday's practice, and while the tough-as-nails floor general was able to gut out 22 minutes on the court of the World's Most Famous Arena, he had come to the realization that, at least for the time being, his presence on the court was actually a detriment to his team. Doing so is perhaps the toughest thing for any competitor to admit, but also stands as an example of the team-first mentality Nichols has adopted in four seasons as a Mountaineer.
"I rolled it Friday in practice, probably about 20 minutes into practice," Nichols recalled. "It was painful. I could barely walk on Friday, and I tried to get a lot of treatment on it before the game. It was just a situation where I wasn't 100 percent and while I was in there I felt like I was hurting the team."
So it was that Nichols sat and watched as his understudy, sophomore Joe Mazzulla, drove three-quarters of the court and zoomed past a helpless St. John's defender for the game-tying layup at the end of regulation, forcing the action into an extra frame in which the Mountaineers ultimately ceased control of their eleventh Big East win of the season. And despite the physical pain in his ankle, Nichols noted that having to watch everything take place from the bench without being able to help out his team's efforts might have been just as hurtful.
"I think that pain was worse than the injury, just not being able to be in there helping my team in a big game like that," he explained.
Before long, Nichols will have another chance to help out the Mountaineers in MSG, this time on an even bigger stage as he prepares for his final Big East Tournament. A loss by Marquette on Saturday afternoon in Syracuse assured West Virginia of the No. 5 seed in the annual event, and unlike in years past, Nichols says the goals for this year's conference tournament are clearly defined: West Virginia will take the floor for Wednesday's 2:00 PM game against 12th-seeded Providence with the mentality of being in it to win it, despite having likely already sewn up an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.
"We're just going with the mindset of trying to win (the Big East Tournament and automatic NCAA bid)," he said without a hint of sarcasm or hesitation. "In the past, our mindset was just to go in and try to win a few games, but this year we want to win it."
The goal of doing so unquestionably becomes much more attainable with a healthy Nichols in the fold. After all, he is the only remaining Mountaineer to know what it's like to play in Saturday night's primetime championship game, having played a key reserve role as a freshman during West Virginia's march to the Big East finals where it ultimately fell to the aforementioned Orange.
Since Friday's injury, Nichols has been working tirelessly with WVU trainers and the like in hopes of being 100 percent for postseason play. As for the prognosis...?
"I'll be fine," he vowed. "The trainers are doing a great job, and I'm walking better already. I'll be out there ready to go on Wednesday."