CHAMPAIGN — Kipper Nichols didn’t help the University of Illinois upset No. 6 Michigan State on Monday night.
But he delivered a reminder — to his team and to himself — that he can have the kind of impact that can bring the Illini their first Big Ten Conference victory of the season and more in the weeks to come.
Now, just one question: Will he do it?
Nichols, a sophomore forward, played the best game of his college career with 27 points in 22 minutes against the Spartans. Nichols might be the poster boy for the inconsistencies that have plagued a team that is 0-8 in the Big Ten and brings a six-game losing streak into Wednesday’s 8 p.m. home game against Indiana.
Consider that Nichols played just five minutes and was scoreless Friday at Wisconsin. The game before that he scored five points at Nebraska.
But on Jan. 6 at Michigan, Nichols led Illinois with 17 points. And he scored 16 earlier this season in a victory over DePaul.
Hot and cold. On and off. That’s been Kipper Nichols’ reputation since he transferred from Tulane and became eligible in mid-December of last season.
Now a redshirt sophomore, the 6-foot-6 forward from Cleveland is searching to find a level of consistency that allows him to realize his potential and allows coach Brad Underwood to count on getting a higher level of performance.
“I’m trying to be an everyday guy,” Nichols said, repeating one of Underwood’s favorite sayings. “It’s the one thing I’m trying to make a habit of. Coach gets on me for a reason. I’m maturing and realizing that.”
It would not be wrong to suggest that Nichols has an intimate knowledge of Underwood’s doghouse. He’s spent time there for messing up defensive assignments, for forcing shots, for passing up open shots and for Underwood’s pet peeve with Nichols — for making breakaway layups way more difficult than they need to be.
Finally against Michigan State, Nichols finished a breakaway with a resounding dunk.
“I’ll bet he was happy about that one,” Nichols laughed with a glance toward his coach.
Underwood admits he pushes harder on Nichols than most.
“I challenge him every single day and I do it because I love him and because I know what he’s capable of,” Underwood said. “I know what he can give this team. He can get us to another level.
“But tomorrow is another day and now he has to do it all over again. That’s what good players do. No days off.”
Indiana arrives at the State Farm Center playing some of its best basketball under first-year head coach Archie Miller, who came over from Dayton after Tom Crean was let go. The Hoosiers have won four of their last five, including Monday’s 71-68 victory over Maryland.
“Indiana is very good defensively,” Underwood said. “Juwan Morgan is having an off-the-charts kind of year and Robert Johnson is an upperclassman who has been through all the wars.
“They’re not overly big. They’ll be just the opposite of what we saw in Michigan State. But they’re a team that just finds a way.”
Illini freshman Trent Frazier said a players-only meeting on Sunday helped get the team focused after a 25-point loss Friday at Wisconsin.
“Everyone said what they had to say,” he said. “A lot of guys were into themselves and not worried about the team and we talked about becoming a family, about coming together and playing for each other, about going out there and playing as hard as we can.
“It was very helpful. Leaders are coming together and it’s really powerful. Mark Alstork and Kipper are stepping up and we’re merging together.
“I’m proud of where this team is heading and excited to see where we can take this thing. We’re upset about these losses. We’re tired of losing and we’re still trying to figure out how to get a win. We know coach Underwood believes in us.”