Matt Nicholson is making the most of the opportunity to be on the floor for two-time defending Class A state champion Clarkston.
Nicholson is playing a big role in helping Clarkston (11-2, 6-0) — ranked No. 6 in The News Super 20 poll —remain the premier team in the OAA Red Division and one of the top teams in the state.
And, Nicholson is big. He's a 7-foot junior center for coach Tim Wasilk, who in his first year has Clarkston rolling, winning its last 11 games, the past four by 14 or more points, including a 53-39 victory over No. 7 Detroit King this past Saturday.
Wasilk knew all about Nicholson as an assistant coach under Dan Fife last year, watching Nicholson bang away in practice with a pair of 6-9 players in Taylor Currie and Thomas Kithier.
It’s hard to believe Nicholson could have better practice partners than Currie (Wisconsin) and Kithier (Michigan State), who are now playing in the Big Ten.
It also helped that Nicholson could go up against his older brother, 6-9, 230-pound Michael Nicholson, who was a starter last year on Lake Superior State’s team, which finished 25-8.
Nicholson is definitely making the most of his opportunity, using what he learned from a year ago in practice and putting it to good use on the floor.
Nicholson is averaging 14 points, 12.2 rebounds and three blocks, filling the stat sheet in Tuesday night’s 73-42 Red Division rout of Bloomfield Hills with 13 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks and six assists.
“You don’t even know how much I’ve waited for this,” Nicholson said after a 66-52 victory at Oak Park. “Growing up and watching them from the side, like watching my brother play, I’ve always dreamed about playing for Clarkston, especially when it was under Coach Fife. Now, that I have my chance it’s like a dream come true.”
In the win over Oak Park, Nicholson — who has a wingspan of 7 feet, 4 inches — blocked six shots and altered at least a half dozen more.
With a freshman backcourt of Fletcher Loyer and Keegan Wasilk, things didn’t start well, with losses to Sterling Heights Stevenson (59-53) and Pontiac (63-58) before getting that first win, 62-46, over a talented Orchard Lake St. Mary’s team.
“We started off a little rough, then got used to it with a new coach and a new squad," Nicholson said. "So we kind of got things going now and we’ve got a feeling in how we have to play in order to go along with Clarkston basketball and the style. We just bring it hard every day and everything seems to click now.”
Nicholson credits his progression to going up against Currie and Kithier in practice, along with going up against his brother.
“I learned how to play hard and (against) a lot more moves," said Nicholson who is playing at 215 pounds, 15 pounds more than a year ago. “Under Coach Fife you learn a lot every day, and going up against those guys (Currie, Kithier), it felt like every day in practice was a game.”
And, of his brother?
“He’s a good amount older, and it just helps me because he has a high basketball IQ, and he’s also bigger, too, so it helps me be more physical,” Nicholson said. “He has a lot of different moves that he teaches me. He just like analyzes the game and helps me with all that, helps me realize what I should do everywhere out there.”
Loyer, the younger brother of Michigan State freshman and former Mr. Basketball Foster Loyer, and Wasilk are playing like veterans, averaging 16.5 and 12.5 points, respectively. Senior guard Jake Jensen has played well coming off the bench, including a six-point, six-rebound, four-assist effort in the win over King.
“They are good, especially with Fletcher having his older brother,” Nicholson. “He learned a lot. They have a different viewpoint of the game for me, so it’s good seeing their viewpoint.”
Nicholson is definitely an option with his size in helping Loyer and Wasilk break the press.
Tim Wasilk is thrilled to have a weapon in Nicholson, but must only wonder what could have been since Currie should still be playing at Clarkston, reclassifying prior to the 2017-18 school year.
“None of the kids that play right now were in the rotation last year, so just getting them comfortable in what we want to do took some time,” Wasilk said.
Fife used an eight-man rotation last season and the bulk of the players are playing in college, including Loyer (MSU), Currie (Wisconsin), guard C.J. Robinson (Lake Superior State), forward Tristen Mysen (Lake Superior State), forward Hank Schemmel (Grace Christian) and guard Demond Mills-Bradley (Lawrence Tech).
“We’ve gotten better defensively,” Wasilk said. “Matt Nicholson creates havoc defensively with his length when teams penetrate on us. I think what Matt brings is that he’s a 7-foote,r and there’s obviously not a lot of 7-footers out there so what you get when kids drive in the paint is that you have great length, so it’s tough to shoot over that.
“He makes a big difference in terms of blocking or altering shots. He rebounds well, moves well for a 7-footer. Offensively, he does a good job of establishing himself in the post. He does a good job of passing out of the post. He didn’t play at all last year, but anywhere else he would have gotten time on the floor. He learned a lot in practice, you know going up against Taylor Currie and Thomas Kithier."
Michael Nicholson is proud of his younger brother.
“Anytime that you have guys that go to the Big Ten you’re going to get better, even if it’s in practice,” Michael said of his brother facing Currie and Kithier last year. “And, then he comes home and in the summer and plays against me. I had just graduated from Lake State, so he got tougher just going up against the bigger body.
“I’ve seen all the work that he put in through the summer, through the preseason, in the weight room four times a week, in the gym six days a week. He’s come a long way. As a brother he’s not always going to listen to me, but I’ve been surprised that this season he’s actually listening to what I’m saying, and it shows since he’s gotten a lot better since last year.”