Derrick Mercer is American’s best on-the-ball defender. Frank Borden was assigned to contain the Patriot League’s top scorer, Navy’s Kaleo Kina. But Jordan Nichols is the Eagles player Coach Jeff Jones is nominating for the league’s defensive player of the year award.
“He’s had a phenomenal year at the defensive end for a guy – I know we list him at 6-[foot]-5, he’s 6-4 – guarding bigger players,” Jones said. “He guards scorers. He helps. He blocks shots. He does a lot of things that really help his teammates. . . . Jordan is a big part of whatever success we have.”
Nichols faces an uphill battle to win the award, not because he isn’t worthy – he is – but in many ways the DeMatha graduate from Glen Dale typifies American’s defense: stealthy rather than flashy. Just as the Eagles don’t lead in many defensive statistical categories, neither does Nichols. Sure, his 7-3 wingspan has helped him block the third-most shots in school history but for the most part his contributions escape the stat sheet.
“Coach says I’m an anchor to the defense, that’s what he calls it,” Nichols said. “Helping everybody else out, making everybody’s job easier. . . . That’s why coaches always say I’m a team player because it’s not really about my stats. I might not have the most rebounds on the team or anything like that, but I know that my job is just as important as the guy who grabs the rebound because without me – I’m pushing the biggest guy out. I’m 6-4; he’s 6-8 – he’s not getting it.”
Because American can be so much fun to watch on the offensive end of the court, the Eagles’ defense often is overlooked. Take the Navy game. Garrison Carr made several clutch three-pointers and scored 20 points. Mercer’s uncanny ability to find his teammates for open shots led to his seven assists. But American also held Navy, the Patriot League’s top offense, more than 12 points below its season average. Nichols was a big reason why. In a spectacular defensive performance, he finished with 9 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 steals. He also scored six points and had two assists.
“I was just trying to be there to help out if [his teammates] needed any help,” Nichols said. “Usually I’m not guarding the best scorer so I try to help out. Those are the guys who are really working their tails off and I just try to make their job easier.”
American is strictly a man-to-man defensive team. The Eagles almost never play zone or gimmicky, junk defenses. They simply stop their opponents. It is a strategy that works well for them. AU is the league’s stingiest team, the only one with a scoring defense below 60 points (58.1). The Eagles haven’t allowed a team to put up 60 points on them since Lafayette scored 65 on Jan. 31. Only four teams have reached 70 points against AU this season.
“It’s not athleticism necessarily or steals or the stats,” Nichols said of the Eagles’ defense. “It’s just the fact that everything the other team gets they have to work hard for. . . . It’s going to be a low field goal percentage on the other team. Every shot contested. Out there [on the court], you put your hard hat on, you go to work against the guy you’re guarding and you try to stop him one-on-one. If you can’t do that, then you can’t play.”
February 27, 2009; 6:05 AM ET
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