You hear it all the time: A freshman needs to know his place. And although University of Memphis coach Josh Pastner didn’t say that to forward Austin Nichols, and teammates didn’t tell him to stand down, there was an element of hesitation in his game.
Memphis freshman Austin Nichols is stepping up his game. The American Athletic Conference has named him Rookie of the Week for his play against Rutgers and Temple.
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
“One hundred percent (true),” Pastner said of Nichols’ initial mindset. “He just wanted to fit in, sit in the back seat of the vehicle. And I told him he needs to be the driver. We need him to be going after everything.
“And (it’s OK to) make mistakes,” the coach added. “You’re going to make mistakes. Just make mistakes going at full speed.”
At the moment, however, no one is focusing on Nichols’ mistakes. The American Athletic Conference just named the Briarcrest graduate its Rookie of the Week for the second time this season after Nichols averaged 13.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and shot 70.6 percent from the floor (12 of 17) in Tiger victories last week over Rutgers and Temple.
Nichols posted the first double-double of his career in the overtime win against Temple at FedExForum as he scored 17 points with 12 rebounds and blocked seven shots – the second-most by a freshman in Memphis history.
“Nobody was surprised by that,” senior guard Michael Dixon said of Nichols’ performance. “He plays in practice like that. He has long arms and uses his length, and he has great touch around the rim. We need him and Shaq (Goodwin) to be rim-protectors for us. He just has to be aggressive, especially going for blocked shots when we have a defensive breakdown.”
Said Nichols: “The first two or three blocks, of course I started counting a little bit. After that, I lost count and just went out there and played.”
Without trepidation, which hasn’t always been the case this season. Even in the Temple game, Pastner sat Nichols down for a bit and told him he had to be confident, aggressive and totally engaged.
Asked if he believes he sometimes has held himself back, Nichols said, “I guess you could say that. But I’ve found my role now and I understand what I need to do to help the team win, and just go out there and give 150 percent.
“I think I’m getting better at timing the blocks, too,” Nichols said. “That’s pretty crucial. If I bring it every night defensively, I think the offense will come.”
Pastner is counting on just that. Memphis (21-6, 10-4) is ranked 21st in the Associated Press poll and has just four regular-season games left, starting Thursday, Feb. 27, at Houston. Then the Tigers finish with No. 7 Louisville at home, at No. 11 Cincinnati, and at home against No. 23 SMU.
“The reason he played well wasn’t his offense,” Pastner said of Nichols, who is averaging 8.6 points and 4.1 rebounds for the season. “It was his rebounding. He had two-hand, two-feet, man rebounds in traffic. And he altered the game with his shot-blocking, which resulted in him being able to be aggressive on the offensive end.
“He feeds off his rebounding and shot-blocking ability. He’s a high-level guy when he plays with that kind of aggressive mindset. His best basketball is going to be in front of him.”