Matt Nicholson has gone from a big man who rarely got off the bench as a 200-pound sophomore to a Mr. Basketball candidate as a 7-foot-1, 230-pound senior center for state power Clarkston.
Nicholson, who will play next year at Northwestern, got on the Breslin Center court for a minute in Clarkston’s one-sided state championship win over Holland West Ottawa his sophomore year when his team repeated as Class A champion, making the most of his short stint, coming through with two points, two rebounds and a blocked shot.
Nicholson also made the most of Clarkston’s practice sessions, banging inside with 6-9 Taylor Currie, who went on to Wisconsin, and Thomas Kithier, who practiced but wasn’t allowed to play after transferring from Macomb Dakota. Kithier is now playing at Michigan State.
With Mr. Basketball award winner Foster Loyer and the rest of the starting five graduating after that 2017-18 season, Nicholson put himself on the radar last season while getting the opportunity to play a major role.
Nicholson averaged a double-double (13.6 points, 12.6 rebounds) while blocking 5.2 shots to help Clarkston to a 17-game winning streak and an OAA Red Division championship before getting upset by Rochester Adams in a district opener.
Now Nicholson is in the conversation for Mr. Basketball, averaging 17.1 points, 14.3 rebounds and five blocks to help Clarkston (5-1) earn a No. 4 ranking in The Detroit News Super 20.
“Having the whole season under my belt and having all that experience has made me more confident," he said. "I'm not making rookie mistakes anymore.”
Nicholson credits his older brother, Michael, a 6-8 former center at Clarkston and Lake Superior State, for helping his development.
“He’s like a big man coach, helps get me ready by going up against him where I have to shoot over a big defender, block out a big guy,” Nicholson said.
Kentucky-bound power forward Isaiah Jackson of Waterford Mott, Benton Harbor forward Carlos Johnson (Butler), Flint Beecher guard Jalen Terry and Wisconsin-bound guard Lorne Bowman of No. 1 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s have been the players most talked about for Mr. Basketball. But Nicholson’s 21-point, 27-rebound, six-block effort in Saturday’s 65-56 win over an athletic and talented Flint Carman-Ainsworth team speaks volumes about his ability.
“I think his strength has made a big difference this season,” Clarkston second-year head coach Tim Wasilk said. “He’s put on 20 pounds and he’s more confident on both ends of the floor, particularly on the offensive end, where I think last year he was getting pushed around a little bit and now he can hold his own. He’s just gotten better around the rim and he’s also improved his free-throw shooting.
“We want him to be more aggressive offensively this season. Just when you get him touches it helps our offense, and he passes the ball well. He’s unselfish and he likes to pass the ball, being a 7-footer he can see over people.”
Wasilk points out that Nicholson’s ultimate strength is defense with his ability to protect the basket.
“He does such a good job at protecting the rim on the defensive side, just affecting shots whether he blocks them or not,” Wasilk said.
Nicholson set the tempo in the opening quarter against Carman-Ainsworth by getting things done on both ends of the court, contributing six points, eight rebounds and four blocks for an early 14-5 lead.
Nicholson did it all after having his dunk blocked in the opening minute. He scored off a putback to get Clarkston on the board and then dunked on another putback for a 4-3 lead, then getting another dunk off an inbounds pass for an 8-5 cushion.
“I didn’t get worried by the block, just went right back at them,” Nicholson said. “And, defensively I tend to get blocks early in games because usually teams don’t play against people like me so they’re usually driving in the paint and that’s when I come in and block shots, get rebounds and kick it out for our transition offense.
“In the second half I don’t get as many blocks because they’re usually shooting it higher or double-clutching, taking low-percentage shots, which is just as good.”
Nicholson said he and his teammates were motivated to get better after the early exit in last year’s postseason.
“That game (district loss to Rochester Adams) motivated us the whole offseason and it will continue to motivate us throughout the year,” Nicholson said. “Only time will tell how well we do, but we have all the tools. I’ve put on 20 pounds and I’ve gotten better all-around. I feel stronger playing defensively in the post, so I definitely notice the difference."
Former Clarkston legendary coach Dan Fife, who sits third in state history with 703 wins, is impressed with Nicholson.
“He’s come a long way,” Fife said. “He’s talented. He can run. He has good hands. He’s so long and his wing span is around 7-2. His motor has really increased.
“He’s somewhat like the European guys. He doesn’t handle the ball much, but he can. He’s a good runner. He’s improved his shot both inside and out and doesn’t panic when guys double down on him.”
Nicholson has a strong supporting cast in 6-4 sophomore guard Fletcher Loyer, Foster’s younger brother, and 6-3 sophomore point guard Keegan Wasilk, Tim’s nephew.
Loyer scored 42, making six 3-pointers in a win over Roseville in late December, then scored 29 in the win over Carman-Ainsworth, including 15 points during the second quarter when he made all five of his shots, three 3-pointers.
Nicholson would love to be considered for Mr. Basketball, but playing at Breslin Center for the state title would be just as sweet.
“That’s a goal, but there are a lot of great players out there,” Nicholson said of Mr. Basketball. “I feel now that I’m captain I have a lot of control of the team, so getting us to the state championship game and making a big postseason run is definitely a goal.”