Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Men’s Basketball: Nicholson’s post presence transcends stat sheet in Northwestern’s victory at Indiana

Henry Frieman/The Daily Northwestern
Senior center Matthew Nicholson attacks the rim against Indiana Sunday. Nicholson tallied 14 points and 16 rebounds in the victory.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — During a magical 2022-23 run that culminated in Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, Northwestern’s frontcourt flair came to fruition with the emergence of a new post centerpiece. Saving his best for the brightest stage, a seven-footer from a small Detroit suburb soared into coach Chris Collins’ starting lineup and didn’t look back.

After solidifying his central role last year, senior center Matthew Nicholson carried high expectations into his fourth season in Evanston. However, Nicholson’s steady progression seemingly collided with a rugged roadblock at the season’s outset.

“He’ll be the first person to tell you, he had a bit of a slower start to the season,” Collins said. “He had some injury issues, he wasn’t in peak condition and he’s really worked hard to get himself back in shape.”

Following a dismal road trip to in-state rival Illinois Jan. 2, Collins removed Nicholson from his starting five, inserting sophomore forward Luke Hunger atop the frontcourt rotation for five consecutive games. 

Nicholson saw his minutes’ share increase during that stretch and eventually reclaimed his role in an overtime upset of the Fighting Illini later that month. Since then, the Clarkston, Michigan native has recorded seven consecutive starts, logging 25-plus minutes in all but two games.

Winless on the road since Jan. 10, the Wildcats (18-8, 9-6 Big Ten) ventured into Indiana with their postseason ambitions firmly in the balance. Fresh off eight days’ rest, the Hoosiers (14-11, 6-8 Big Ten) debuted their Fear of God alternates and looked to hand NU its sixth consecutive road loss.

Although early shooting struggles and foul trouble sent the ‘Cats into unsteady waters, Nicholson’s collected post presence and court command helped redirect the contest’s — and potentially the season’s — course in a 76-72 victory.

While Indiana’s jerseys evoked trepidation, Nicholson packed a frightening, frenetic flow in the painted area, striking fear in the hearts of Hoosier challengers.

“That was shades of last year, seeing him get those slip dunks,” Collins said. “He’s moving a lot better, and because of that his confidence is growing.”

As graduate student guard Boo Buie struggled to find his form and junior guard Brooks Barnhizer slipped into early foul trouble, Nicholson formed a potent one-two punch alongside graduate student guard Ryan Langborg.

Though he recorded his first career double-double, tallying 14 points, 16 rebounds, two blocks and two steals to complement four rim-rattling dunks, the seven-footer’s impact transcended the stat sheet and ascended the loftiest Assembly Hall heights.

“Some nights, he doesn’t have the numbers, but it’s not about the stats,” Collins said. “It’s about his presence on the floor… This last month of the season, he’s really starting to play at a high level, which has been great for us.”

Hauling in seven of his team’s 14 offensive boards, Nicholson helped NU secure 12 vital second-chance points. Although rebounding was an issue that plagued his early season struggles, the big man ruled the glass Sunday.

Despite tallying four first-half points on a 2-of-2 clip from the field, Nicholson saw his number called on time and time again during the second period. When the ‘Cats needed him to step up and meet the moment’s magnitude, Nicholson delivered.

“I don’t really have any plays drawn up for me,” Nicholson said before jokingly shushing Collins’ interjection. “But, I just try to do as much as I can — and I was able to finish those (looks).”

Sunday’s stage might’ve been too grand for many, but Nicholson proved perfectly poised under immense pressure. With early season struggles in the rearview, Nicholson’s 10 second-half points on an efficient 5-of-7 conversion rate helped rally his squad.

The center even extended his limited range on a crunch-time hook shot, which Collins called “one of the bigger shots of the game.” For the reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year, NU can only go as far as Nicholson’s play permits.

“He’s just our presence. We need his physicality, his shot blocking, he’s an elite rebounder and everyone on our team knows how important that is for us,” Collins said. “We’re not going to win against high-level opponents if he doesn’t play at a high level.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n 

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