CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s been a year and a half now that Austin Nichols has been in Charlottesville, and he still hasn’t found any barbecue as good as he gets back home in Memphis.
There’s one “pretty good” place, he concedes. It’s about a half-mile walk from where Nichols sat in a chair on the practice court inside John Paul Jones Arena on Monday, bouncing his leg fast as he answered questions from a gaggle of reporters for the first time as a Virginia Cavalier.
“My parents ship it to me,” Nichols joked, when asked how he gets his barbecue fix nowadays. “No, I wish — but they need to, for sure. I went home about two weeks ago for fall break and definitely got some then.”
Virginia isn’t quite a second home yet to Nichols, Virginia basketball’s highly touted forward who transferred from Memphis after his sophomore season in 2015. During Virginia’s media day Monday, Nichols tried to sort out the gray area he currently inhabits: The 22-year-old has two valuable years of experience in college basketball, but he is still a new guy — one of seven on Virginia’s roster this year. He is a 6-foot-9 forward who ranked third nationally with 3.4 blocked shots per game as a sophomore and is expected to make up for much of what the Cavaliers lost in Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey after those players graduated from last season’s 29-win team. But he is still learning Coach Tony Bennett’s defense.
“It’s different than anything I’ve ever been around, to be honest with you,” Nichols said in a twang that drops his g’s and skips over both e’s in “different.” “I’ve never played in a defense that was this tough to understand at first. But once you get it, it’s all about being in the right positions, and when we’re all clicking on defense, I think that’s a pretty beautiful sight. Like I said, just gotta keep learning.”
Nichols doesn’t have much time.
The Cavaliers begin their season in less than a month, on Nov. 11 at North Carolina Greensboro. There is by no means a sense of panic around the program, but everyone is aware of what Virginia lost. For now, uncertainty defines Virginia basketball.
“There’s a lot of unknown,” Bennett said.
Last season, Brogdon averaged 18.2 points per game and Gill averaged 6.1 rebounds per game. Brogdon, Gill and Tobey took 52.3 percent of the Cavaliers’ shots, with returning starting point guard London Perrantes accounting for another 14 percent.
Bennett, of course, knew he would reach this moment eventually. So Nichols is here.
After choosing to initially attend Memphis, his hometown school, over Virginia, the forward was named the American Athletic Conference’s 2014 rookie of the year. Nichols averaged 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game for the Tigers, shooting 58.9 percent from the floor. In the NCAA tournament, Nichols had a team-high 15 points in a loss to Virginia in Raleigh, N.C.
As a sophomore, he was first-team all-AAC after leading the Tigers in scoring at 13.3 points per game. At Virginia, Nichols is expected to help make up for the team’s relative lack of scoring as much as he is supposed to defend well around the rim.
“Of course, he has a nice upside. He does some things from a talent standpoint that are terrific, and I think he could be an important piece for us this year,” Bennett said. “He has offensive, left-hand, right-hand skills and abilities. . . . And I think his ability to score around the lane, off the lane a little bit, is going to be needed for us. And he has the ability to block shots.”
The forward spent his mandatory redshirt season working on getting stronger, improving his range — unlike his predecessors in the front court, he can shoot a three — and speeding up his footwork, which is important in the pack-line defense.
That Nichols has dealt with pressure before will help him cope with adjusting to a new system. He learned how to keep his mind right playing as a hometown hero at Memphis and looked perfectly comfortable as the center of attention Monday in Charlottesville.
“I found if I thought about [the pressure] too much I wouldn’t be focusing on the game, I’d be focusing more on what people thought,” Nichols said. “So I just kind of let that slip away. I know there’s a lot of expectations for me here. I’m not the hometown kid, of course, but I’ve just got to do what the coaches tell me to do and do it right.”