When Andrew Nicholson talks about being a preseason nominee for the prestigious John R. Wooden Award, you get the impression it’s something that happened accidentally.
While most players would be excited to be recognized as one of U.S. college basketball’s elite players, Nicholson, entering his senior season at St. Bonaventure University, says modestly it was nice to be on the list, adding his family was more excited about the news than he was.
“The accolades are just accolades. I just work to win,” the 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward said last month. “There’s five guys on the court. It’s not like it’s 5-on-1.”
And anyone who knows the Mississauga native well enough will say the same thing: That’s just Andrew being Andrew.
“All the recognition hasn’t gone to his head,” St. Bonaventure Bonnies head coach Mark Schmidt says. “His game’s improved but he’s still the same Andrew.”
By all accounts, Nicholson has every reason to gloat.
Lightly recruited coming out of Father Michael Goetz Secondary School, he has steadily blossomed since arriving at the Western New York school, which plays in the strong Atlantic 10 conference.
He was named the conference’s top freshman player, a second-team all-star as a sophomore and cracked the first-team all-star squad last season. He’s now considered one of the best frontcourt players in the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association and a potential first-round NBA selection. (ESPN draft guru Chad Ford currently has Nicholson rated No. 29 on his list of 2012 draft prospects.)
Nicholson’s rise has also helped to elevate a once-floundering Bonnies men’s basketball program. Once a perennial cellar-dweller, the team has averaged 15 wins during his three years on campus.
Last year, the Bonnies made a postseason appearance (albeit in the College Basketball Invitational tournament) for the first time in a decade, led by their Canadian star, who averaged a league-best 20.8 points per game and 57.1-per-cent field-goal percentage despite facing constant double and triple teams.
Nicholson, 21, is currently tied with Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Bob Lanier as the school’s leader in career field-goal percentage (57.6).
“He’s one of the main reasons why we’ve gotten better,” Schmidt says. “He’s been here four years, and really worked hard to help elevate the program. You always want a guy in the middle that you can go to and he certainly is that.”
Expectations are even higher heading into his senior season. The league’s coaches voted the Bonnies to finish fourth in a preseason poll, and Nicholson is once again expected to lead the way. In early October, the school unveiled a website (AndrewNicholson44.com) dedicated to promoting its all-America candidate through his senior year and beyond.
In a season-opening 79-58 win over Cornell last Friday, Nicholson led all scorers with 24 points, including a 10-for-10 performance from the free-throw line, and grabbed five rebounds.
The Bonnies boss has long likened Nicholson to two-time NBA all-star David West, a player Schmidt helped develop as an assistant at Xavier University. He says their growth as players and paths to college success almost mirror each other. But despite all the attention Nicholson has recently received, he’s the same humble guy that stepped onto campus in 2008.
“None of that stuff fazes him at all,” Schmidt says. “I would assume he’s proud of those accomplishments but he doesn’t act any differently. I think those accolades have really driven him even harder to be a better player than he could be. He’s a very humble kid and doesn’t take any of this stuff too seriously.”
While the NBA buzz continues to grow, Nicholson, a physics major, is setting his sights on a more immediate goal: a good season for his team.
“I have thought about [my future]but I’m just focused on what I’m doing now,” he says. “I feel if I focus more on that, it will flow over into what I can achieve after. If I can do well here, then I’ll do well then.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
With a file from The Associated Press