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St. Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson (44), blocks a shot by Xavier's Kenny Frease (32) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball championship game in the Atlantic 10 men's tournament in Atlantic City, N.J., Sunday, March 11, 2012. St. Bonaventure won 67-56. (Mel Evans/The Associated Press)
St. Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson (44), blocks a shot by Xavier's Kenny Frease (32) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball championship game in the Atlantic 10 men's tournament in Atlantic City, N.J., Sunday, March 11, 2012. St. Bonaventure won 67-56. (Mel Evans/The Associated Press)

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At 2:30 Monday morning they turned out several hundred strong to salute one of the most unlikely Cinderella stories in U.S. college basketball.

They were some of the 2,000 or so students of tiny St. Bonaventure University and some of the diehard fans among the townies in this blue-collar burg still struggling from the rust-belt 1980s, let alone the most recent hard times. The people were there to welcome their Atlantic 10 conference champion Bonnies home, especially Andrew Nicholson, a 6-foot-9 power forward from Mississauga who along with head coach Mark Schmidt can take credit for bringing the men’s basketball team back to NCAA prominence after suffering from a nine-year-old scandal.

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“He brought us out of the ashes,” Schmidt said of Nicholson, who had 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocked shots in the 67-56 win over perennial power Xavier in the A-10 title game.

The conference’s player of the year is hearing talk of being a lottery pick in June’s NBA draft. But there is more to Nicholson than basketball. He is a physics major scheduled to graduate in May.

“It’s just good time management,” Nicholson said of his ability to juggle a demanding class schedule with Division I basketball. “I’ve been here for every summer school just to get ahead.”

Nicholson is also drawing international media attention but shrugs it off. In an age of athletes’ shouting their own praises in every form of media, Nicholson is a man of few words. “I’m pretty level-headed. It doesn’t faze me,” he said, the closest he comes to any sort of bragging.

Four years ago, Nicholson was the first major recruit for Schmidt after he was hired to turn around a basketball program that was struggling to shake a player-eligibility scandal from 2003. Few were willing to predict even a .500 record in the years ahead. But a run of eight wins in their last 10 games, including three straight at the conference championship in Atlantic City, N.J., gave Nicholson and the Bonnies the school’s first A-10 title. They also put the Bonnies in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. One night later, the women’s team qualified for their NCAA tournament.

“What’s happened here in the last three days has been miraculous,” Schmidt said as his team, ranked No. 14 in the NCAA East Region, prepared for Friday’s game against No. 3 Florida State.

When Schmidt arrived at St. Bonaventure in 2007, the school was still trying to come to grips with the scandal. In 2003, it was discovered the Bonnies were knowingly using an academically ineligible player. All of their games to that point were forfeited and the rest of the players boycotted the last two games.

This may seem like a low-rent controversy by the standards of big-time U.S. college athletics, but the fallout was extreme. St. Bonaventure is a Catholic school founded by the Franciscan order. Ethics are a serious matter on this campus nestled among the trees at the foot of the Allegheny Mountains.

There were the usual firings, resignations and sanctions from the NCAA. But almost every member of the student body and the faculty was shaken. Then William Swan, the chairman of St. Bonaventure’s trustees, committed suicide. It was linked to depression over the scandal.

Only now, Schmidt says, does the school have a chance to put the affair behind it.

“It’s been a good journey,” Nicholson, 22, said. “It’s been a long four years and it’s all paid off.”

The payoff came because Nicholson put the Bonnies on his broad shoulders and carried them for the last half of the season. Nicholson, the son of Jamaican immigrants who did not play basketball competitively until he was in Grade 11 at Father Michael Goetz Secondary School in Mississauga, is now drawing comparisons to St. Bonaventure’s most famous basketball grad, Bob Lanier, whose statue stands outside the 5,480-seat Reilly Center. Before moving on to become an NBA hall of famer, Lanier led the Bonnies to their greatest achievement, an appearance in the NCAA’s Final Four in 1970.

“Someone asked me if he’s better than Bob Lanier,” Schmidt said. “I said I can’t tell you if he’s better than Bob Lanier. I never saw Bob Lanier play in college. But he’s our Bob Lanier.

“He’s everything to us. He helped build this program, he helped bring us back. He’ll be one of the most talked-about student athletes or alumnus ever in this school.”

Opposing coaches are already talking about him. Xavier coach Chris Mack says Nicholson is the best player in the conference. Phil Martelli, whose St. Joseph’s team lost to the Bonnies in the conference tournament, says: “When you have a discussion about the most impactful big man in the Atlantic 10, in my time, Marcus Camby’s on that list, David West is on that list and Andrew Nicholson is on that list.”

Rick Majerus, coach of St. Louis University, thinks Nicholson is the best big man coming out of college, period. “He can pass it, he can rebound it, he can block shots – geez, what did he have, eight blocked shots [Sunday] He’s an unbelievably potent weapon,” Majerus said.

But it was only six years ago, when he started Grade 11, that Nicholson decided to play competitive basketball. “I played baseball,” Nicholson says, adding that a summer growth spurt of four inches played a role. Before that, he played basketball, but only to “go to the park and shoot around.”

Nicholson was a quick study and by the summer before his final year of high school, the big U.S. college recruiters were coming around. But an ankle injury kept him out of the showcase tournaments in the summer before his final year of high school. It was a lucky break for St. Bonaventure since Nicholson remained unknown and wound up with the Bonnies.

Nicholson, though, says he might have been a Bonnie anyway. Thanks to his parents Fabian and Colmaleen, education was always important and St. Bonaventure had a new science building that suited Nicholson’s interests. He also was intrigued about being part of a program that was trying to restore itself.

“They were struggling and I wanted to be part of a program that was getting back on its feet,” Nicholson said.

The Bonnies are back on their feet now and the basketball world lies at Nicholson’s feet.

“The great thing is, and NBA guys talk about it all the time, he’s just learning the game,” Schmidt said. “Most Americans have played the game since they were eight years old. That’s why the ceiling for him is so much higher than the ceiling for an average American who’s been playing his whole life.”

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