A year ago, Mark Nickens was the sixth man on American University's basketball team. When AU's star, Boo Bowers, was injured, Nickens replaced him.
This winter, Nickens "is the player we want to take the big shot," according to Eagle Coach Gary Williams.
When Bowers, who set most school scoring records and made basketball fun to watch again for AU fans, injured a knee in the 10th game last season, everyone looked to super substitute Nickens.
"I had hoped to take someone's place but I didn't mind coming off the bench," the 6-foot-5, 205-pound junior said. "It gave me a chance to check out the other team and find out what was going on. That was to my advantage.
"When Boo went out, I just tried to fit in without upsetting things too much. I know people expected a lot from me and, in the back of my mind, I knew how I got the opportunity to start. I realized what I accomplished could have easily been Boo."
But Nickens played marvelously, especially during the last half of the year when Bowers was out. Nickens averaged 15 points and 5.4 rebounds, had 66 assists and led the team in steals with 69.
He helped the Eagles to their best record ever (24-6), to the East Coast Conference regular season championship and to a berth in the National Invitation Tournament. He made the all-ECC team.
"We weren't surprised how well Nick played because we knew he was a quality player," Williams said. "You're not sure how a guy would react after being out a whole year. Nick accepted his role coming off the bench and played as many minutes as anyone. Boo was an explosive scorer, where Nick is a quiet scorer.
"When the game is over and Nick has 25 points, you wonder where he got them. At this stage of their careers, when both (Bowers and Nickens) were juniors, I would have to say Nick might be a little better overall. Nick sees the opportunity to score and rarely takes a bad shot."
Nickens lost his first chance to be a hero early this season against Wake Forest. With five seconds left, he missed an 18-foot jumper that probably would have given the Eagles one of their finest victories ever. Wake won, 66-63.
"It was a shot I'd take any time and a shot I'd make most of the time," Nickens said. "I'd rather shoot the ball in the final seconds than watch someone else shoot. I'm not concerned about being a hero, but I have a lot of confidence in myself and I feel I can make any shot I take. Hopefully, we won't be behind too many times in the last seconds."
As a swing man, Nickens faces a variety of defenses, some designed especially to stop him from scoring.
"He's seeing those types of defenses now," Williams said. "Nick's definitely a clutch shooter and the team wants him to have the ball in those situations. His strength is his great outside shooting, but he also rebounds, passes and helps break the press. He's a proven player and a leader. When I say something or get on him, he gives me a certain look. I can tell when he's upset. He doesn't have to say anything."
Nickens makes a lot of noise on the court. He is the ECC's leading scorer with a 21.1 average, shooting 56 percent from the floor and 76 percent from the line. He is averaging five rebounds per game and is second on the team in steals.
Unlike most players, Nickens is more effective away from home. Nickens has played so well at Philadelphia's Palestra, the home of several ECC teams, that he was named to the gymnasium's all-opponent team last year.
"I don't know why I play well there; it's like a home away from home," said Nickens, who had 27 points, eight rebounds and seven steals in AU's recent 87-69 victory over La Salle at the Palestra. "I heard it was a tough place to play. I just like the place. I just like to play."
An all-Met at Mackin High School, Nickens passed over AU in favor of Texas Christian University. But after what he calls a bad experience, he transferred to AU. Sitting out the next year was hard; Nickens acted as an informal cheerleader as American finished at 14-13.
Nickens has scored double figures in 34 straight games. In games this season, he has scored 31, 29 and 27 points. Against Rider, he made 15 of 17 field goal attempts, most from long range, in his best-shooting game at AU.
"The big reason we've won is because Nick proved he can play," said Gordon Austin, AU's point guard who should break all the school's assist records. "He's a great athlete and has that temperament to make us play better. He gets the team going when we need to."
Nickens probably has the largest rooting section on the East Coast. One of 11 children, he often plays before 35 to 50 relatives at Fort Myer. But shortly before the season started, Nickens' grandfather and father died. Although despondent, Nickens played the day after his father's death.
"It was a tough week for me," Nickens said. "I decided to play to get my mind off it and get my family's mind off it. I wanted everyone to think about something pleasant."
With the team's record at 9-5, things are pleasant around campus these days. The losses were to Wake Forest, Tennessee (59-58, on a 40-foot shot at the buzzer), Georgetown (75-63), Wyoming (71-63) and Drexel (81-75).
"We lost to some very good teams," Williams said. "Our December schedule showed us we can play with anyone. Even though we've lost more games than we did at this point last year, we feel we have a better team. The 11-day layoff and a mental letdown hurt us in our loss to Drexel. It taught us a lesson. We can't relax against anyone."
Nickens agreed. "We have a good group and we feel we can have another good season. We lost some games we know we should have won. You can't be just satisfied with playing well if you don't win the games.
"People are telling us, don't worry about the losses because we'll all underclassmen and will be together next year," said Nickens, a criminal justice major. "That's a nice luxury if you're a coach, knowing everyone is coming back next year. But we're aren't banking on next year. We want to win now. I think we will."
Especially when Nickens is taking the pressure shots.