Drew Nicholas was pulling into the barber shop parking lot this week when he noticed Juan Dixon's shiny black Cadillac Escalade sitting out front. Even with Dixon playing his basketball for the Washington Wizards instead of the Maryland Terrapins, Nicholas still was getting in line behind his former teammate.
After playing Dixon's understudy for the better part of three years, Nicholas was supposed to get a chance to emerge in a lead role in this, his senior season. But despite averaging a team-leading 17.3 points for a 19-7 team still in contention for the ACC regular season title with one game remaining, Nicholas has found Dixon's shadow nearly impossible to escape.
"There probably aren't many times when my name gets brought up and Juan's isn't right behind," Nicholas said. "It's just always brought up. Like I've said before, I'm not disturbed by it, I pretty much take it as a compliment. But at the same time I want to be looked at as my own kind of player. I don't always want to be looked at as the one who came after Juan Dixon. It's nice, but I want to leave my own impression, my own imprint. But that's hard to do after what he did."
All Dixon did was break the school's career scoring record while leading the team to back-to-back Final Fours and a national championship last spring, cementing his place among the best players in school history.
Dixon and Nicholas had a conversation last season during the NCAA tournament about Nicholas assuming more of a leadership role on these Terrapins. It paid off.
"He said, 'Juan I have to fill your shoes.' I said, 'All you've got to do is play your game," Dixon said. "Our games are very much alike. He's gotten a lot better from last year. He's taken on the responsibility of being a leader and they're wining."
For the past three seasons, Nicholas followed Dixon almost everywhere on the court and often was not far behind off it. He nearly always had the task of guarding Dixon in practice, and during games, Nicholas would study his teammate's every move, taking in subtleties such as the way Dixon would try to lose himself on defense so he could sneak back into the passing lane for a steal.
When Dixon started going to the gym late at night for extra shooting practice, Nicholas soon followed. The two even shared an apartment last season. Around the team, it became something of a joke. "Here comes your big brother," players would tease Nicholas when Dixon neared. Even now, with Dixon in the NBA, Nicholas still is jokingly called Dixon's little brother whenever the Wizards guard returns to campus."You're used to battling with that person every day in practice. . . . For Drew it was three years," Dixon said. "When you're so used to battling against somebody else, it's going to make you a great player. Drew has certainly done that. The three years I was there we had our battles and it's worked out for him."
Nicholas, a native of Hempstead, N.Y., says he doesn't spend much time thinking about the comparisons to Dixon, but that isn't always easy. "It's definitely a lot tougher after losses," Nicholas said. "In pretty much all the losses we've had, I haven't necessarily played very well."
In No. 13 Maryland's seven losses, Nicholas has shot 31.5 percent from the field (more than 12 percent under his season's average) and 25 percent from three-point range (16 percent under his season's average). His four lowest-scoring games also have been losses.
"I'm not going to lie, I feel like a lot of the responsibility is placed somewhat on me when we lose," Nicholas said. "I don't have a problem with that. But let's not sit here and say, 'Juan would have come through in the clutch for us every time if he was still here.' Give me a fair handshake on that. It hurts a little bit because it comes from supposedly Maryland fans. I don't think it's necessarily right.
"After I have a bad game, it gets frustrating. Everything that I didn't do, Juan would have done. I don't think that's necessarily fair. They are different situations, different teams. It's not like we just replaced Juan with me and put ourselves in the same situation. I'm not here with Chris Wilcox and Lonny [Baxter] and Byron" Mouton.
Indeed, this has been a reloading season for the Terrapins, with four new starters and five new reserves. Reloading, however, does not mean falling off. With only Sunday night's regular season finale at Virginia remaining, Maryland (19-7, 11-4) remains in the chase for the conference title, a game behind first-place Wake Forest (22-3, 12-3).
Nicholas, who has taken to referring to freshman guard Chris McCray as "little brother," has been behind much of that success, failing to score in double figures just twice all season.
This past Sunday, Nicholas made perhaps the team's most memorable shot of the season -- a long three-pointer from the right wing with 1.5 seconds left that gave Maryland a 68-65 victory over North Carolina State.
"He's got a toughness about him that he's going to make that three against State; he's going to make big plays," said North Carolina Coach Matt Doherty, who as a Long Island native said he followed Nicholas's career with a keen interest.
"I don't think anybody can tell Drew he can't do something because I think he's a tough kid. Coming out of high school, I don't think you say, 'Okay, can this guy start on this team?' I don't know if you say he's a top 25 recruit. But he's one of the better players in the best league in the country in my opinion. I'm real impressed with what Drew accomplished over his career at Maryland."
Said Maryland Coach Gary Williams, noting that Nicholas has been successful even as opposing defenses try to focus on him: "After [Sunday] night, he's got to be considered for first-team all-league. He's a big part of us doing well."
Nicholas's winning three-pointer against N.C. State is the kind of shot that will be remembered for some time. Nicholas, however, said the shot meant more for the team this season than it did for his place in school history.
"I understand I can do that five more times, and it's not a comparison -- I'm not Juan Dixon," Nicholas said. "Let me be Drew Nicholas and assess Drew Nicholas by the way Drew Nicholas plays, not the way Juan Dixon played. That's what I ask people to do."
Staff writer Steve Wyche contributed to this report.