Believe it or not, we’re just a few weeks away from basketball season. That’s right, both men’s and women’s basketball games are right around the corner. For our coverage of the 2021-22 coverage of the men’s team, we’re previewing each and every player on Northwestern’s roster. Up next is Matt Nicholson, a sophomore center out of Clarkston, MI.
Who he is
Sophomore; 7-foot-0; 255 pounds; Clarkston, MI; First Team All-State in high school; top-300/three-star recruit
9 games played; 2.6 minutes per game, 1.0 points per game, 0.7 rebounds per game, 0.1 assists per game, 0.1 blocks per game, 44.4 FG% and 25.0 FT%.
As a freshman playing behind a crowded frontcourt, Nicholson did not see much of the floor last season. The first-year out of Michigan appeared in just nine games all year, often subbing in for only a minute or two before being taken out of the game. As such, it is hard to assess his development as a player and where he currently stands in comparison to other bigs Pete Nance and Ryan Young
However, in a recent Instagram video, Chris Collins said that Nicholson has shown a lot of improvement over the past year, and that “where he is today versus where he was coming in as a freshman is light years from each other.” Collins also said that the sophomore has gotten more athletic and stronger since coming to Northwestern, and that there is a role for him on this year’s squad.
While this is promising to hear, only time will tell whether that statement will come to fruition this season.
In recent years, Northwestern has typically relied on a small ball center to man the five. With players like Dererk Pardon —who is 6-foot-8— and Ryan Young —who is 6-foot-10— suiting up at the five for many games in the past few years, the ‘Cats have employed this strategy to varying levels of success. However, Nicholson is a remarked departure from that. Standing seven feet tall and weighing in at 255 pounds, his game is predicated on his ability to dominate in the post on offense and protect the paint on defense, both of which he excelled in at the high school level.
When Nicholson has his back is to the basket, he has a solid set of post moves and uses his towering height advantage to get buckets. Playing behind now Big Ten players Thomas Kithier and Taylor Currie in high school certainly helped, and his offensive game continues to improve as he goes up against Nance and Young in practice.
Nicholson’s size also helps him as a defender. While he has not really had the chance to showcase what he can do at a college level, the blueprint is certainly there for players of his build to become elite shot blockers and dominant paint presences. In his two minutes of play against Purdue in February, Nicholson hustled back on an opposing fast break for an impressive chase down block, giving fans a taste of what might be to come.
With his impressive size, however, do come some downsides in the athleticism department, primarily with his speed and quickness. Nicholson is slower than most players on the court at a given time, and it’s particularly noticeable in his pick-and-roll defense, when he can be a step late in his movements.
His lack of lateral mobility can make him a liability on defense, particularly against teams that feature smaller and quicker lineups. However, as proven by players like Luka Garza, these attributes do not mean that Nicholson cannot develop into a quality Big Ten starter for Northwestern.
From the tape, Nicholson also lacks the ability to score outside of the paint. The lack of a jump shot, even in the midrange, impedes his potential as an offensive threat, especially considering his lack of speed. While it is not essential for Nicholson to be able to make jump shots, his lack of one is certainly a weakness especially when considering how necessary the quality is in the sport of basketball at both the college and professional level.
Despite a year of growth and training under his belt as he heads into his sophomore season, Nicholson will likely be on the bench for most games this year. This being said, in this week’s press conference, Collins said that there is no set starting five, which likely means that most players on the team will have the chance early on to carve a role out for themselves. If Nicholson shows that he can have a positive impact, it could mean more consistent minutes as the season progresses. However, with both Nance and Young ahead of him on the depth chart, this is not very likely, so the ceiling remains low for his second season as a Wildcat.