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A freshman season to remember for Tigers' Nicholson

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

In many ways, Fort Hays State University freshman point guard Craig Nicholson encapsulated his career in Wednesday's 78-71 victory against University of Central Oklahoma.

Nicholson, easily the smallest player on either team at 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, played 36 minutes and collected 15 points with a career-high 12 assists against two turnovers. The assists tied for seventh best for a single game in Tiger history. Nicholson pushed the tempo, handled the ball versus the Bronchos' press and initiated the fast break.

"We've got to put a lot on him, and he has done a tremendous job accepting it," Tiger coach Mark Johnson said.

As usual, his parents and grandmother, part of a strong family unit, sat courtside. Christi Nicholson, Craig's mother, tracked her son's statistics.

"My mom is very active, and she is always all over my stats," Nicholson said with a smile. "She does stats during the game, too. She hates it when (FHSU) gets my stats wrong. I am like, 'Mom, calm down, it's not that serious.' "

After the game, Nicholson walked out of the locker room and wrapped his grandmother in a big hug.

He, his family and Johnson talked and joked for a few minutes on the court, a scene replicated after virtually every home game.

"I trusted Coach Johnson from the first time that he talked to me," Nicholson said. "He hasn't lied to me or anything, which is good. I trust him a lot. I just like it here. It's a great town and great fans and everything, and I love my teammates."

The strong family support, Johnson's coaching and Nicholson's ability has helped produce arguably the best freshman season in Tiger annals, in recent MIAA history -- and possibly nationally this winter. Nicholson averages 13.3 points and 7.2 assists per game and is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range for the Tigers (12-6, 6-4 MIAA). On Saturday, FHSU will host Missouri Southern State University (9-9, 4-6 MIAA). Game time is 4 p.m.

"Craig is one of the best freshmen to come into this league," Johnson said. "I think stats, he might be the best in the last how many years."

He is expected to win the MIAA Freshman of the Year and ranked second nationally in assists in the latest release of Division II statistics. As well, Nicholson is on pace to set the school record for assists per game.

"I am really big on (assists) this year, because I know that I've got guys that can score around me," Nicholson said. "That's all that I really focus on. I don't really even care about the points anymore, I am just focused on the assists."

The current mark is 6.6 per contest set in Raymond Lee's freshman year of 1982-83. Nicholson has received comparisons to Tiger point guard Dominique Jones, another quick, shorter point guard who earned All-American honors two seasons ago.

"They are kind of similar and definitely by the time that Craig is a senior, he is going to be a problem," senior Lance Russell said. "He is already a problem, but he is on his way. It's crazy for him to be a freshman, he is real good."

Nicholson played at Wichita Northwest and earned Class 6A first team all-state honors last season after he averaged 20.2 points per contest. Still, Nicholson played in the shadow of Wichita Heights' standout and McDonald's All-American Perry Ellis, now at University of Kansas. Some NCAA Division I schools looked at Nicholson, but his small stature scared off many schools.

"I had a chip on my shoulder since I was there and it got me far," Nicholson said.

Then, Johnson called Nicholson. The point guard said Johnson wasn't worried about Nicholson's height. Nicholson loved Fort Hays on his visit and committed the next day. He signed in the early signing period last year.

"You can't turn a place like this down," Nicholson said.

In the preseason, Johnson said he expected Nicholson to play a key role in an uptempo offense, a different pace than usual Tiger teams. FHSU has averaged 72 possessions a game compared to 67, 71 and 69 the last three seasons. Nicholson started slowly, but gained confidence in the first conference game of the season, a home win against University of Central Missouri on Dec. 5.

"When I knew that I could play to my potential, then I knew that I just had to keep working hard and the sky is the limit for me," Nicholson said.

He finished with 22 points and seven assists. Since then, he has tallied double figures every contest, has seven games with at least eight assists and a positive assist to turnover ratio in all but one game.

"As Craig's career evolves, I don't know if his stat line is going to get much better," Johnson said. "I don't think he is going to be a guy who is going to, all of a sudden, average 22 a game. I think his stats are going to be his stats.

"I think you are going to see a little bit of a bump as his career goes along," he added. "But I think he is going to be able to do other things, be more detailed in his defensive assignments, be a better defender than he is right now, take over more of a leadership role as time goes on. From a stat point, he is playing so well, there is only so far you can go."

This winter, Nicholson has improved in his decision-making, including finding the open teammate and knowing when to push the pace. Nicholson said he gets down on himself when he doesn't play well, but has worked on shaking off a poor performance. Plus, he has changed his diet and eaten more sandwiches to keep his body fresh for playing 30-plus minutes every night.

"Pretty much being smarter and not trying to force as much stuff," Nicholson said. "I hate when I turn over the ball. When I do that, I get down on myself a lot, but I just try to focus on not trying to go so deep, because I know I am small and can't see half the time, so I've just got to take what the defense gives me."

He watches other point guards, especially University of Michigan's Trey Burke and Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul.

"It's just how smart they play," Nicholson said. "They just do whatever they can to make the team win, and to get the teammates involved and always looking to pass first, and if they are open, then they will shoot it. They are not selfish and making certain they are the leading scorer or anything. They just want to win.SDRq