Former Mountaineer Darris Nichols Coaches First NCAA Tournament - WVU Football, WVU Basketball, News - Mountaineer Sports

Former Mountaineer Darris Nichols Coaches First NCAA Tournament

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MORGANTOWN -

Remember that team that embarrassed West Virginia in its exhibition game and led to real concern that the coming season would be quite a long one for the Mountaineers?

Well, that team begins its quest for a national championship tonight.

Former WVU basketball player Darris Nichols will lead his Northern Kentucky University Norse into battle against Findlay Saturday at 8:30 p.m. in the opening round Midwest Regional as he looks to close out strong in his first season as a college assistant coach.

"It's exciting, but at the same time, you expect to be here," says Nichols. "It's not enough to say you are in the tournament."

The No. 11 NKU squad rose as high as seventh in the Division-II standings this season, beginning the schedule with 13-straight victories after shocking WVU 77-74 in Morgantown.

Even though that game against Nichols' former coach Bob Huggins did not count for anything toward either teams' record or statistics, it went a very long way in giving the underdog Norse the confidence needed to put together the season that way.

"Momentum," is what Nichols said his team could take from the win at the time. "It gives our players a glimpse of how good we can be and stuff we need to work on in the future. I think West Virginia exposed some of our weaknesses, so we just need to go back and watch tape and figure out where we can get better."

They were able to do just that and aside from a bit of a lull in the middle of the season, the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Nichols believes his team is back to the type of basketball he knows it is capable of, despite a few struggles along the way.

"We've definitely grown as a team," he says. "I think right now we're playing some of our basketball like we were when we first started in the preseason. We fell off a little, but now we're back to playing well."

NKU finished the regular season with a second-best conference record of 13-5 and were 23-6 overall, winning two conference tournament games before losing in the Great Lakes Valley championship game to Southern Indiana.

The Norse had led by 10 points at the half of that contest before the Screaming Eagles woke up and shot 60 percent from the field to pull out a four-point title victory.

Now Nichols and company are hoping to learn a lesson from that giveaway to propel the team through the NCAA Tournament and on to a championship in its last season at the Division-II level.

Beginning next season, the Norse will begin competing with the big dogs in D-I as part of the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Nichols found himself in a terrific situation when head coach Dave Bezold hired him to work for NKU at such a pivotal time in the program's history. Alongside former WVU graduate assistant Kevin Schappell, the Mountaineer flair has done well for Northern Kentucky, which already had a winning tradition prior to their arrival.

Early Saturday, Nichols said that getting a D-II championship is the goal for his Norse as they wrap up play at this level and look forward to what lies ahead.

"It'd be huge. It would definitely be a momentum boost going into our first year of Division-I," says Nichols. "We know that transition is going to be a tough transition, but if we go out this year with a bang like that, it would definitely be helpful."

If the Norse are able to fight on past the regionals, the Elite Eight and on will be played in their own gym. Home court advantage would certainly be nice, but Nichols admits that throughout the season he has felt like playing on the road bring fewer distractions than being around their own campus.

For now, it is a date with the 5-seed Findlay Oilers and if NKU wins that one, it will take on the winner of top seed Bellarmine and Lewis on Sunday. The regional championship game is scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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