The magical 2019-2020 Illinois Fighting Illini season ended in a flash. Sure, Illinois fans expected to beat the Iowa Hawkeyes in a rematch on the last day of the season — but few, if any at the time would have guessed that the win over an always-angry Fran McCaffery would be the final basketball game of the school year.
It hurts. The pain is deep across the board from the alumni and fans, to the current students and players. The players most hurt by the sudden ending were the seniors, including the one and only Kipper Nichols. On an Illinois Basketball team with true big men and an abundance of guards in the rotation, Nichols stood out as one of the only bona fide wings on the squad.
Playing basketball at this level is tough. Being a good basketball player is even harder. The biggest challenge, and what separates “pretty good” to “very good” and even “great” is the consistency factor — can you legitimately bring it every single night, and can the coach trust you and count on you whether it is game 6 versus Hampton or game 16 at Wisconsin.
Kipper Nichols contributed to this team and likely would have been a significant factor in the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament — but those opportunities never came, and that’s really sad.
Thank you, Kipper.
By the Numbers
Kipper saw his minutes decrease significantly from 2018-2019 to 2019-2020. After starting 14 games in his junior season, Kipper Nichols started just one game his senior season — and that start came during his senior night at home against Iowa in the season finale.
In all, Kipper averaged 3.4 points, 0.6 assists, 2 rebounds and 0.5 steals in 13.8 minutes per game. His points, assists and rebounds were all career lows (not counting his freshman year where he was ineligible for the first 11 games due to transfer rules), and he was a non-factor from the three-point line, making just two of his 19 attempts during the season. His decrease in minutes was likely due to a number of reasons, including the rise in play of the now-transferred-out Alan Griffin. Kipper is the much stronger, bigger player — but when it comes to rebounding the basketball and making three-pointers as an off-ball role player, Griffin has a more efficient overall game.
Nichols was eighth on the team in minutes per game — which is not really puzzling if you’ve watched Kipper Nichols play over the years and how he can look great in one pre-timeout stretch and then look completely lost in another. Still, with his seniority, experience and versatile body-type, it became a never ending question: What is the deal with Kipper Nichols?
Impact on the Illini
There is a lot more to a college basketball season, or frankly any team sport season than the game itself. When Brad Underwood gets angry and frankly looks like the Incredible Hulk at times on the sideline, sure that’s what fans see on their TV screens, but coaching the game and going to work on a daily basis entails so much more — and there is a lot more to Brad Underwood and his demeanor than what we see for 40 minutes.
I’d like to believe that behind the scenes, Kipper Nichols was a good teammate who was maybe not the most important piece, but a piece nonetheless of a winning basketball culture and locker room. Not the most focused nor the most engaged, by all accounts Kipper Nichols was well-liked and brought some positive energy to the team in practice and on the road when the team traveled.
There were times where teammate Giorgi Bezhanishvili was struggling on both ends of the court and Underwood just needed to put another bigger body out there just to withstand the pressure and play some meaningful minutes just to get through the game unscathed. Nichols was there as an option and who could get some possessions in defending the opposing team’s post players when Giorgi was really off his game and in a funk. Post defense is not Nichols’ strength, but given the makeup of the roster and the inexperience of true freshman Jermaine Hamlin, there often was no other choice.
Will the Illini miss Kipper Nichols? Just looking at the recruiting class coming in and the notion that Brad Underwood keeps improving the level of talent at Illinois each and every year — this is not to sound harsh — but the answer is probably no. Illinois can use more players that look like Kipper Nichols — true swingmen, wing players who can play the 3 and the 4, with the ability to defend positions 2 through 4. The transfer market will be important, and there are a few players with similar body types to Kipper Nichols such as Brandon Johnson and Fred Scott.
Rider grad transfer Fred Scott tells me he has cut his list to the following programs:— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) April 2, 2020
Kipper’s Best Game
Ask any Illini fan which game they wanted to win the most this past season, and probably 90 percent of them would answer the Iowa game on what would be the final day of the season. The stakes? A double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament and a win over the loathsome Hawkeyes. The atmosphere at that game was as heated as any in the Underwood era.
Kipper saved his best performance for last, scoring a season-high 10 points against the Hawkeyes, making all three of his two-point attempts and going 4-for-4 from the free throw line. In a tight, two-point win over Iowa, Nichols went out with a bang and played extremely well — which was critical since every possession was magnified given the intensity of the rivalry. His three rebounds did not go unnoticed.
Kipper had his best game of the season that day, and it is all the more sad knowing that at the time, the senior had no clue it would be his final game in an Illini uniform. The season was pulled out from under him, and no one deserves that.
The Quick and Dirty
The 2019-2020 season was the Illini’s best in 15 years, and Kipper deserves credit for being part of a team that helped resurrect and restore the pride of Illinois Basketball across the state and across the national landscape.
As I reflect on this team and on Kipper Nichols’ Illini career by looking at his game logs — an outlier of outliers stands out, and it came in a loss. The 2018 season ended with a wimper in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament in New York City. The Illini fell 96-87 to the Iowa Hawkeyes, but it was Kipper Nichols who made Illini fans smile — scoring a career-high 31 points while going 5-of-9 from behind the arc.
That one game instilled fear in opposing coaches that Kipper could explode and go off at any time — and that single game kept Kipper in the scouting report of opposing coaches for the following two seasons. Just ask Fran McCaffery and former Nebraska head coach Tim Miles.
Not many players in the world can say that they scored 30+ points in a meaningful game at Madison Square Garden. Kipper Nichols did it. He was part of teams that were awful and a team that was great in his senior season. Kipper Nichols. Illini for life.