To prepare for the tip-off of another great year of college basketball, CHD is reaching out to coaches and players around the country to get the inside scoop on what we can expect this time around. Jon Teitel continues our season preview series by chatting with Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry about what a coach does on his birthday.
You lost four starters from last year and you have two seniors and nine freshmen on the current roster. Is this team built to win now or do you think this is going to be a rebuilding year? When I took this job I knew I was inheriting a team that would have tough times ahead. As a Ralph Willard guy I like to have long and athletic guys who can shoot, so we brought in nine guys last year and this is the year that we circled. We won a lot of games at Hampton with a team composed of five freshmen, so I think it might work here as well. You have to steal some players away from the major conferences in order to be successful, and I know we will be talented.
Your non-conference road schedule includes trips to Harvard, Pitt, Houston, and USC. Which of these games do you feel will present your biggest test and what are your expectations for the upcoming season? When I worked for Ralph we played everybody. If you feel confident about your team then you want to play the best, and eventually you will beat the best. People hated to play us when we were at Holy Cross and Clemson. I knew that Harvard would be good when we scheduled them a couple of years ago, but not top 25 good! We will put ourselves in a position to get better from it and keep moving on.
You played basketball at Virginia Wesleyan. How good a player were you back in the day and how did you get into coaching? I was probably the best clapper on the team, but I had a great coach who told me that I had a great eye for basketball and he hooked me up with an internship at Old Dominion. I worked a little bit in corporate America and was just trudging along, but by working out some guys for Len Elmore, I received an offer and was able to fall back in love with coaching. I became known as a recruiter who was able to bring in some rookies of the year and players of the year.
In the 2001 NCAA tourney, as an assistant under Coach Willard at Holy Cross, Tayshaun Prince scored 27 points in a four point win by #2-seed Kentucky. How close did you come to pulling off the upset? We were right there but Prince hit an unbelievable shot to win the game.
In the 2008 MEAC tourney, as head coach at Hampton, Julian Conyers made a free throw with 2.7 seconds left in a one point overtime win by Coppin State. Where does that rank among the most devastating losses of your career? It is probably one of the biggest. I will never forget that game. We had a heck of a team that year after learning how to build a team to get to that point.
You have worked for a lot of great mentors (Willard, Oliver Purnell and Bobby Lutz). Which of them has had the biggest influence on you as a coach? Willard by far. He is the best basketball mind I have ever been around and he taught me how to build a program. He taught me to stay patient and to learn why you lost a game because they all mean something. If you get home-court advantage through your play during the year, you have to take advantage of it in the postseason. He was an unbelievable mentor and remains a great friend.
In 2009, you were hired as head coach of the Libyan national team. How did you get the job and what was the hardest part? I got the job due to my reputation as a program-builder and my name was passed along to the Libyans. I was not interested the first time they asked me, but I became intrigued later on and figured it was time for a change. It was a huge challenge because they had not won many (if any) international basketball games in the history of the country.
In 2010 you were hired as head coach at Howard. Why did you take the job? Both of my parents went to Howard and I love challenges. It gave me a chance to come home for the first time in over 15 years to what everyone thought was one of the worst jobs in the league. My father is now in his mid-80s and he cried when I told him I was taking the job.
You have a birthday coming up next week; What are you doing for the big day? Practicing…for 23 years straight I have always practiced on my birthday, so I would feel superstitious if we didn’t!