Interview: Former Maryland Guard Drew Nicholas

Earlier this evening, I spoke with former Maryland Terrapins’ guard and college basketball analyst Drew Nicholas, who was a 4-year player at Maryland, national champion and 2nd-team All ACC selection in his senior season before a 10-year career overseas. In addition to his 2 Final Four runs at Maryland, Nicholas has won 2 Euroleague titles, most recently in 2011, with the Greek team Panathinaikos.

You may remember Nicholas for this 3-ball, 10 years ago this week, in the 2002-03 NCAA Tournament, which beat the buzzer to move the Terps into the 2nd round past UNC-Wilmington.

Or this shot that gave Gary Williams his 500th win against N.C. State.

We talked NCAA Tournament, Maryland memories, NBA Draft projections and more. Below, you’ll find the interview transcript. (P.S.: Give Drew a follow on Twitter, @DrewNicholas12.)

Duprey: Drew, thanks for taking the time.

Nicholas: Thanks a lot, man. How are you doing?

Duprey: Good, good. Let’s get right into it. I’ve always been curious, as someone who grew up playing basketball — you’ve been to the Tournament 4 times … what’s it like being an athlete on that stage?

Nicholas: Sure. It’s definitely a great feeling and a great accomplishment. The thing I love about the NCAA Tournament, along with being able to play ball … I love to be able to walk outside and start to feel the weather get warm; that’s when you know the NCAA Tournament is right around the corner. Back in my career, in my freshman year, we went to the second round; in my sophomore year, we went to the Final 4, and my junior year, we ended up winning it all; my senior year, we got to the Sweet 16, so I was very, very fortunate to do some things in the Tournament.

Duprey: So I’ve got to touch on that shot. It’s 10 years ago this week, you hit a fall-away 3 to beat UNC-Wilmington. As a kid, we all dream about hitting shots like that. Can you take me through that sequence … to not only hit a game-winner at the buzzer, but to save your season in doing so?

Nicholas: One word I have to describe it is surreal. It seems like yesterday I was dribbling down the court just trying to get as close to the basket as possible, knowing that I didn’t have that much time left. And it was my senior year, so I kind of thought my college career might be coming to an end.

When I let the ball go — I tell people all the time now, but when I let the ball go — I really thought it didn’t have a chance to go in, and I thought it was going to be an air-ball, because I was going so fast, and it was such a difficult shot. After I hit the shot, you saw my reaction — I just started running. I started to run directly toward the locker room, because I didn’t want the refs telling me that the shot didn’t count or anything like that; I was just trying to get off the floor as soon as possible.

Any time I go back, or I hear anybody explain to me about the shot, I look at it again, and it’s mind-blowing. It’s really a chilling and great feeling.

Duprey: I’m curious as to what, if anything, Gary Williams told you after that shot. Watching the video over, it looks like he’s trying to get his team in order, but he also couldn’t help but pump his fists a few times. What did he have to tell you afterward?

Nicholas: He just told me that it was one of the best shots that he had ever saw. Part of it is, things like that happen in March Madness. You go back and you watch the video, and you see Coach Williams, initially, really, really upset because everybody had left the bench, and he wanted to make sure that no one on the bench or the team got a technical foul for leaving the bench or celebrating too early. So he was trying to get everyone huddled back on the bench, waiting for the referees’ final call on the shot.

Duprey: Let’s speculate, if you will, for a few minutes here. That national championship team you guys put on the floor 11 years ago — I mean, you’ve got yourself, Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Steve Blake, Chris Wilcox and Byron Mouton. That’s quite the roster. Say you guys are in this year’s Tournament, do you think you could take it all?

Nicholas: (Laughs.) I definitely think we could take it this year. The one thing about us, we played with a certain chip on our shoulder. A lot of the guys that got recruited to Maryland at that time — me, Juan, Steve — everyone thought that we shouldn’t be playing at that level.

One of things that we did, we all worked hard throughout our college careers, and we were a pretty experienced, veteran team. Juan, Lonny and Byron were seniors, and then you had me and Steve that were juniors, so we had a lot of experience on that team, as well as Chris Wilcox, who was just turning into a star as a sophomore. I really would like our chances against anybody this year.

Duprey: Now, back to you — you’re only 31 years old. You’ve played 10 very successful years overseas, won 2 Euroleague titles. What’s next for you as a basketball player?

Nicholas: For me, I think it’s pretty much done. Ten years playing overseas was a lot, just in terms of the Euroleague season was really long … you’d be away from home for about 10 months out of the year, and after a while, it starts to take a little bit of a toll. So I’m ready to close that chapter of my life and move on. I love what I’m doing now, being a college basketball analyst. I love watching it, talking about it, so this seemed like the right fit for me.

Duprey: One last question before we get into some Tournament projections — I always like to ask guys who played competitive basketball who was the toughest guy they ever went up against. I mean, you must have played against some great guys in high school, you lined up against future NBA-ers every day in practice at Maryland, you played against some great Duke teams, you played with NBA guys like Sarunas Jasikevicius and Nikola Pekovic in Greece, etc.

Regardless of whether you had to guard him, who do you think is the best guy you ever went up against on the basketball court?

Nicholas: That’s a really tough question because there’s quite a few names. Thinking about it off the top of my head … I would have to say the 2 guys who really stick out in my mind are Jay Williams from Duke — he was a tremendous college player — or Dwyane Wade — I worked out with Dwyane getting ready for the 2003 Draft in Miami, so he’s obviously a really good player.

Duprey: Moving to this year’s Tournament, who do you like? A lot of people are really high on Louisville, especially after what they did to Syracuse in the 2nd half there Saturday night in the Big East Tournament Final. Is there a certain team you’re favoring to go all the way?

Nicholas: Looking at them on paper, I like Indiana, and I also like Indiana’s bracket. I feel like they’ve got a really nice bracket leading all the way up to the Elite 8, where, right now, I have them slotted to play against Miami (Fla.), which would be a really good Elite 8 game. When you look at them from top to bottom, I think they’ve finally figured out that getting Cody Zeller the ball more is going to be the key if they want to go all the way to the National Championship.

Duprey: So you’re making me a little disheartened here — you’ve got them getting past my Syracuse Orange?

Nicholas: Yeah, I’ve got them getting past Syracuse, only because I know Syracuse likes playing that 2-3 zone, but I feel like Indiana’s got enough shooters, and with Cody Zeller inside, I think they’re going to get past the Orange.

Duprey: So this is more of a pro basketball blog as opposed to a college basketball one, though we all sort of become college fans this time of year. But I like watching the Tournament to sort of gauge how guys will translate to the next level. A lot of scouts say this is a weaker draft class. Otto Porter, though, from Georgetown really has caught my eye. Is there one guy in this Tournament who you think is going to make an exceptional pro?

Nicholas: One guy that, at the beginning of the year, I didn’t like so much, but as I kept watching him throughout the year, he really grew on me, was Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State. He’s a really big, strong, physical guard. He doesn’t do anything great, but he’s just one of those guys who’s got all the intangibles. He rebounds the ball well, he’s a good leader, and obviously he can score the basketball a little bit.

I think, as he continues to grow as a player, especially at the point guard position, he’s got a real chance to step in and help a team immediately, just because of the size and physicality that he brings to the point guard position.

Duprey: Now, last question before I get you out of here — what do you think is key for college guys seeing their talents translate to the next level? We see college guys like, well, Adam Morrison, to me, is the most recent example of a really, really good college player who just didn’t quite catch on in the pros, whether it’s not the right opportunity, not the right skill set, etc. What do you look for in player that screams NBA talent, not just college talent?

Nicholas: The one thing I look for is, guys have to have a particular skill set. Some of these guys go into the NBA, and they’re pretty good at everything, but a lot of times that doesn’t really equate. I like to focus on guys who I know … OK, let’s say this kid, for example, is a shooter, so he’s an NBA shooter, and he knows exactly what he’s going to be in the NBA.

Sometimes, we get these guys who are maybe a little bit undersized or guys who really don’t have a natural position — sometimes, they get caught a little bit, or maybe lost in the shuffle once they get into the NBA. So I would say a definite, specific skill set, even if it’s just rebounding the basketball — some guys make a long living just rebounding the basketball, so you need that specific skill set.

Duprey: Drew, that’s all the questions I’ve got for you. I wish nothing but the best, and I look forward to watching some college hoops starting tomorrow, I guess — still getting used to the First 4.

Nicholas: Yeah, me too, man — it’s a lot different than when I used to play.

Duprey: All right, Drew. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Nicholas: Thank you.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


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