Return of SMCC Basketball Offers Promise for Nichols, Cougars
Basketball is back at South Mountain Community College, and Cougar men's basketball head Daniel Nichols is excited to return to the hardwood. The student-athletes are excited too, Nichols noted, as, after the team's first organized practice, none wanted to leave the gym.
Such is the case for SMCC after the coronavirus pandemic shut down its 2020-21 season. Coaches and student-athletes alike are so glad to be back together in person and playing the sport they love that they are willing to eschew social time for more practice.
"I could feel the appreciation from the student-athletes during that first practice. It was surprising," said Nichols, who enters his 15th season in charge of the Cougars. "I enjoy the camaraderie with the players, and talking to them keeps me young. I missed those times over the past year, and not just the basketball. I am talking about sharing a few laughs, seeing people in your basketball life and the competition."
Nichols has been the coach of the Cougars several times since 2001. His first stop ran from 2001-2009 and, after leaving to coach Grand Canyon University during the 2008-09 season, continued from 2010-14. He then returned to the SMCC sidelines in 2017.
In his tenure, SMCC has claimed three ACCAC Division II championships, three NJCAA Region championships and an ACCAC postseason title. He has coached seven NJCAA All-Americans and has been named ACC Coach of the Year twice (2008, 2011) and NJCAA District I Coach of the Year three times (2005, 2008, 2012).
On the national stage, Nichols led the Cougars to a seventh-place finish at the 2007 NJCAA National Tournament and the Elite 8 at the 2012 NJCAA Tournament. The team also sat atop of the NJCAA Division II national rankings during the 2010-11 season.
In 2021, the Cougars feature a healthy slate of size and physicality, something Nichols believes will help throughout the grind of ACCAC play.
"Rebounding, loose balls and defense should be our calling cards this season," he said. "We have a lot of size, and those big bodies can do helpful stuff in the paint. We have some very competitive guys on this team, and we will be able to back that up with some physicality. Scoring may be an issue, but steals, dominating the glass and playing defense is where we should make our money."
Nichols came away impressed by the team's performance at the season-opening ACCAC Jamboree. A preseason tournament, the event offered everyone involved a chance to reconvene for basketball in anticipation of the upcoming season.
"Although we are behind in terms of time together, we played well at the Jamboree, and we were pretty tough defensively," he added. "I was impressed by our commitment to play together. We were able to practice together a few times a week in September, and now we are in full practice mode around four times per week. We could be getting in the gym more, but sometimes less can be more. Some of our student-athletes are working and have families, and not everyone lives next door to the campus."
Because of the pandemic, Nichols and his staff had to do things differently to stay connected with the players. That included zoom workouts and a group text chat, but it also included time in person for Nichols to get to know those coming to SMCC to compete.
"We have a lot of new faces, and I made sure to reach out to them and get to know them. Our assistant coach Chris Diaz put together a great group chat, and all were good sessions to get to know one another," Nichols said. "I think communication is one of my stronger points, and I am glad the players came in and felt comfortable right away."
The Jamboree also provided Nichols a chance to reconnect with his fellow basketball coaches and play games in front of fans.
"I saw some good things at the Jamboree, and the schools have accumulated some talented squads with people sitting out last season or not having opportunities," Nichols added. "You never know about this league until it begins, and every game is going to be difficult. There is good camaraderie between the coaches, but there are no nights off, and those Division II games mean a lot."
The success of the Phoenix Suns and their run to the 2021 NBA Finals was something Nichols enjoyed, and he uses NBA players and situations as examples for his team. Nichols scouted NBA games for a private company at one time, making him approach and see the game in a more business-like way. However, the team and program success of the Suns (and the Bucks) impressed him the more he learned about each team's path to success.
"We reference players and situations because we know the student-athletes watch, and there is a lot to teach from the NBA," Nichols said. "Whether it is defensive close-outs or rotation, things NBA players get overlooked for doing every game, student-athletes can relate to emphasis on those technique and skill references as they move up to the next level. Players need to understand what it takes to play at the next level."
The Cougars' first home contest is a scrimmage against Park University at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 12. The team will also play several prep schools in October and November and travel for a Las Vegas tournament in early November.
The ACCAC campaign officially starts on Nov. 17 with a contest at Phoenix College. Three days later, SMCC hosts Glendale CC in a basketball doubleheader with the women starting at 2 p.m. and the men playing at 4 p.m. The season runs through late February, with the allure of March Madness on the horizon.
The upcoming season offers Nichols and the Cougars tremendous promise, an opportunity for all to get back to doing the things we love before the pandemic ground things to halt. That normalcy is something Nichols knows he will find on the basketball court, even if he has to kick his players out of the gym for hanging around too long after practice.