Mark Schmidt first met Andrew Nicholson as he was walking out of a locker room and a few things came to mind: He was gangly and looked like he needed a nice hot meal, but not before a trip to the barbershop.
Schmidt looked peculiarly at assistant coach Jeff Massey, the man who told Schmidt that Nicholson would be the cornerstone of his rebuilding endeavor at St. Bonaventure. Schmidt saw fool’s gold and whispered into Massey’s ear, “Um, this is the guy you said was Greg Oden? Oh my God. I came up here for this?”
Turns out Massey undersold Nicholson. The 6-foot-9 forward from Mississauga, Ont., scored more than 2,100 points, led the Bonnies to their first Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship, a berth in the NCAA Tournament and helped restore luster to the proud program.
St. Bonaventure will retire Nicholson’s No. 44 prior to today’s 4 p.m. game against Rhode Island (11-16, 2-10). Now a member of the Orlando Magic, who selected him in the first round in 2012, Nicholson is the ninth member of the Bonnies’ basketball program to have his number placed in the rafters of the Reilly Center.
Nicholson averaged 18.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game as a senior and was selected the A-10 Player of the Year as the Bonnies finished 20-12. It was their first 20-win season and first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without Andrew and what he did for us,” Schmidt said. “Not just from a basketball perspective but he epitomizes everything we try to do in terms of recruiting: Getting kids who want to go to school and love to play. They’re going to represent our university in the right way. He never felt like he was bigger than anyone else.”
The 2012 A-10 Tournament on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City was his finest moment. In three games, Nicholson averaged 23.3 points, 10 rebounds and 5.3 blocks while shooting 55.2 percent from the field. He was at his best in the championship game against Xavier when he scored 26 points with 14 rebounds and eight blocks in a stunning 67-56 victory.
“He helped bring respect back to the program,” Schmidt said. “We wouldn’t be where we are now without him and the things that he did for us.”
Soon after his initial meeting with Nicholson, Schmidt’s first impressions of the youngster were pushed aside when he started playing.
“I got goose bumps,” Schmidt said. “Oh my God, look at this kid. He has a chance to be really good.”
After his freshman season, Nicholson’s mother and father came to pick him up for the summer and Schmidt told the family Nicholson had a chance at a pro career. They all gave Schmidt a “we came down here for this?” glance.
“They looked at me like I had one eyeball and rightfully so,” he said. “They came here for the academics. He came here because he wanted to major in chemistry. At that time, I don’t think he had any idea what was ahead of him.”
St. Bonaventure moved quickly to honor Nicholson. The University at Buffalo has yet to retire the No. 11 worn by Turner Battle, arguably the greatest player in school history, or Rasaun Young, the program’s career scoring leader. As the sparkling career of Javon McCrea winds down, his No. 12 should be removed from circulation as well. Retiring Nicholson’s number was a no-brainer.
“How many first-round draft choices do you have?” Schmidt said. “When was the last first-round draft choice? I think it would be Bob Lanier, right? He deserves it. Where this program was and where it is now, Andrew had a lot to do with it. Almost everything to do with it. Not to degrade anybody else because it takes five guys to win but without him being in the middle … He deserves it. The sooner the better.”
Elsewhere in the Big 4, UB (15-8, 9-4 Mid-American Conference) is a game behind Toledo and Western Michigan in the race for the overall league championship coming into today’s game at noon at Kent State (15-11, 6-7). Canisius (18-10, 12-5) is in sole possession of fourth place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference as the Golden Griffins play Fairfield (6-22, 3-14) at 2 p.m. at the Koessler Center in their regular season home finale, while Niagara hosts Quinnipiac (18-8, 13-4) at 3 p.m. In a key MAAC game Friday, Iona improved to 18-8, 15-2 by holding on at Rider (13-13, 9-8), 80-77 as Sean Armond and A.J. English had 20 points each.
In Big 4 women’s basketball, the Bonnies (20-8, 9-4) play George Mason (7-19, 1-12) today at 1:30 p.m. at the Reilly Center, while UB (15-9, 8-5) hosts East Division leading Bowling Green (22-3, 12-1) at 2 p.m. Canisius (11-15, 7-10) is at MAAC leader Iona (23-3, 16-1) at 2 p.m., while Niagara (8-18, 6-11) plays at Monmouth (6-22, 5-12) at 4 p.m.