Country roads take Nichols home as Huggins clashes with former player

When Bob Huggins joined West Virginia as a head coach in 2007, his starting playmaker was a junior named Darris Nichols.

Nichols was a bit of a gift to Huggins – he was already experienced and well trained after playing two seasons under John Beilein. Over the next two seasons, he gave Huggins over 10 points per game and helped shape some of the WVU stars who ultimately took the program to a Final Four.

“He was great to train, but so was Da’Sean [Butler], so was [Kevin Jones], I mean we’ve been blessed, ”Huggins said after WVU’s victory over Bellarmine on Tuesday.

On Saturday, Huggins will go through a first. For the first time in his career, the legendary WVU coach will face one of his former players, Nichols having recently taken on the post of manager at Radford.

The country roads led Nichols home in two ways. WVU fans will appreciate the opportunity to see one of their stars on the opposite sideline of a building he’s played 144 games in, of course, but on a larger scale Nichols took his first job as a ‘trainer in his hometown of Radford.

It will be a unique case in which Huggins, who trains in his hometown of Morgantown, takes on a former player, who also represents his own hometown.

Nichols has been around the world in college basketball since the end of his playing career. As an assistant, he spent time in West Virginia, Northern Kentucky, Wofford, Louisiana Tech and Florida before securing his first head coaching position. He’s even faced Huggins and WVU three times in Florida, visiting the Coliseum last year as his Gators beat the Mountaineers in the Big 12 / SEC Challenge.

Granted, Radford is a very different program in terms of size and reach from Florida – but Huggins, who started his career at Walsh, says he’s happy for his former player.

“I’m happy for Darris,” Huggins said. “It’s a great opportunity for him, and especially to be able to do it in his hometown. We all start somewhere and hope to be successful, and I hope that success continues elsewhere. “

College basketball, however, is a very different sport than it was during Huggins’ time in Walsh. He says it’s harder to build relationships with players and other coaches, which Huggins is proud of – and for that reason, he wouldn’t want to be a rookie coach like Nichols these days.

Still, Huggins trusts Nichols and says he knows what he’s doing.

“Everyone thought I was crazy when I left Ohio State to go to Walsh, which maybe I was. Everyone said, why are you doing it? And I said because I believe in myself, ”Huggins said. “I bet on me. And I think that’s what Darris did, and you know, I think you have to have a strong belief in yourself and what you do … and I think Darris has those qualities.

Nichols’ tenure has not started well as his team are at 4-4 in early December. Huggins says it’s normal, however, and it’s his job as a coach to figure out how to fix it – whether it’s making subtle adjustments or big changes.

“I think Darris did that,” Huggins said. “He went from them who are struggling to win three times in a row and play very well. I mean, if you watch those three games, they’re playing really well.

One of those wins, in fact, came against Eastern Kentucky – a team that caused problems for WVU.

The switchover between West Virginia and Radford is set for 4 p.m. ET on ESPN +.

Toya J. Bell