With basketball season inching closer, let’s keep previewing a squad hopeful of returning to the Big Dance. Today we’ll look at one of Northwestern’s most important pieces: Matthew Nicholson.
Who is he?
Senior; center; 7-foot; 255 pounds; from Clarkston, Michigan
34 games (25 starts), 21.0 minutes per game, 6.3 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game, 1.2 assists per game, 1.2 blocks per game, 0.6 steals per game, 61.4% FG%, 47.8% FT%
After appearing in 24 games through his first two campaigns in Evanston, Nicholson started 25 games for the ‘Cats last season. Coming off the bench to begin the year, Nicholson’s impact on both ends helped the 7-footer outplay Tydus Verhoeven for the starting spot by mid-December. After dropping nine points and eight boards in his first start against DePaul, the Michigan native never looked back, solidifying himself as a key cog in Northwestern’s starting group.
However, offensive inconsistency hampered Nicholson early in conference play. The center missed all seven of his shots against Ohio State on New Year’s Day but found other ways to impact the game with two blocks and a season-high 13 boards. Against Rutgers ten days later, Nicholson struggled to score again, finishing with only three points and seven rebounds, but he also held one of the conference’s best centers in Clifford Omoruyi to a season-low four points. Against No. 1 Purdue, Nicholson’s defensive effort, especially in the first half was huge, helping limit one of college basketball’s best players, Zach Edey, to only 10 first-half points.
Later in the year, Nicholson posted 10 points and six rebounds in the regular season finale at Rutgers, helping the ‘Cats secure the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. He closed off the season strong against UCLA, finishing with nine rebounds and a career-high 17 points on seven-for-seven shooting in Northwestern’s heartbreaking March Madness exit.
Nicholson’s size is his best asset. With his length, the Michigan native is an effective rim protector in the heart of Northwestern’s double-team heavy defense. Plus, Nicholson has proven he can keep up with the Big Ten’s best in Omoruyi and Edey after flashing his defensive abilities a season ago. With a never-give-up defensive mentality, Nicholson’s disruptiveness is huge for Northwestern, especially after losing its best defensive piece in Chase Audige. Expect the ‘Cats to rely heavily on their big man’s imposing paint protection to power their defense this season.
Offensively, Nicholson is best within five feet of the basket attacking the glass. He works well with Boo Buie in the two-man game looking for alley-oops or two-hand jams off the bounce pass. Look for Nicholson to use his physicality inside to get high-percentage looks at the basket.
Nicholson’s footwork and lack of defensive fluidity can be a problem. Although he’s got the size to keep up defensively, he’s not the same athlete as the Big Ten’s best big men, making him rely on defensive positioning and staying out of foul trouble — two things that are by no means guaranteed. This also makes it challenging for Nicholson on the glass, who, as a 7-footer, you might have expected to grab more than 5.4 rebounds per contest a season ago.
Offensively, Nicholson’s lack of a post game with his back to the basket makes him an ineffective option for Northwestern to consistently feed inside. This forces Nicholson’s offensive output to come in the pick-and-roll game or from cleaning up the offensive glass. However, a lack of touch or confidence around the rim are his his biggest offensive weaknesses, especially without a jump shot to stretch defenses out. Too many times last season Nicholson found himself in a favorable matchup on a smaller defender around the rack but didn’t fight through contact to go up with the ball.
Plus, Nicholson struggles at the free throw line, finishing last season at a paltry 47.8% from the charity stripe. At times, if the 7-footer made one of two from the line, it felt like a mini-miracle. Nicholson has to improve his free-throw shooting if Northwestern’s offense wants to be better than it was a season ago.
It may be bold to say, and some may even disagree, but Nicholson is Northwestern’s second most important player behind Boo Buie. Although he isn’t the best athlete or offensive threat, his defensive energy and length are paramount to the success of Northwestern’s defense without Audige. As a shot blocker around the rim or making it difficult for opposing offenses to find space to operate in the paint, expect Nicholson to command the middle of the court for Northwestern. The conference schedule is a dogfight, and Nicholson’s interior defense gives Northwestern the chance to compete against the Big Ten’s physical style.
Offensively, if Nicholson is able to find a mid-range jumper, Northwestern’s offense could open up significantly. That may be wishful thinking, but after an offseason of work, expect the big man to improve his touch around the rim and especially at the free throw line. Although he’ll never be the primary focus in an offense with talented playmakers like Buie, Ryan Langborg, Ty Berry and Brooks Barnhizer, Nicholson has shown he’s capable of scoring in spurts, so don’t discount solid offensive performances sprinkled through underlying offensive inefficiency. If he can find a little more consistency scoring the ball and staying out of foul trouble, don’t be surprised if Nicholson’s success correlates to tallies in the win column for the ‘Cats.