Better know a non-conference opponent: Nicholls State


Robin Scholz | The News-Gazette

Nicholls State guard Dexter McClanahan dribbles the ball during Tuesday night's game against Illinois.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Billy Tauzin, Darryl Pounds, Ladarius Webb and Donald J. Bordeaux. Ever heard of them? Probably not, but that’s understandable. 

This collection of NFL players, congressmen and economists make up some of the notable alumni of Nicholls State University, a 6,366-student strong, selective public university located in Thibodaux, Louisiana and Pitt basketball’s first non-conference opponent of the 2019-2020 season.

While they may be best known as the alma matter of Netflix’s Last Chance U fan-favorite, Ronald Ollie, Nicholls State has robust academic notoriety. 

Established in 1948 after the Louisiana state legislature voted to separate them from LSU, the formerly Francis T. Nicholls Junior College became Francis T. Nicholls State College and has since carved out a strong reputation as one of the South’s best value schools. 

US News and World Report ranks Nicholls State No. 34 among top Public Schools, despite the setbacks graduation and retention numbers experienced following Hurricane Katrina. They also boast a broad range of academic programs, including one of the country’s first Culinary Arts programs.

What’s more, in the category of “university affiliated beer,” Nicholls State holds a commanding advantage over Pitt. Last month, Nicholls unveiled a student-designed label for an officially licensed beer called “Colonel’s Retreat” named after a popular student hangout on campus. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s Voodoo Brewery was forced to rebrand its Pitt-themed drink as “Non-Trademark Infringement Alma Mater IPA” following a trademark dispute with Pitt officials for their use of the Cathedral of Learning on the label.

But while the Colonels can boast strong academics and a 1-0 advantage in the branded beverage department, their struggling men’s basketball program still faces an uphill battle on Saturday afternoon.

Nicholls State and head coach Austin Claunch are trying to develop a young roster after suffering through losing records in six of the last seven seasons. 

Claunch has been seen his fair share of lean times while serving as an assistant coach for the Colonels from 2016 to 2018. But he was also a part of one of Nicholls’ best teams in decades — a 21-win 2017 squad that accounted for the program’s most wins since 1995. 

As an assistant, Claunch worked primarily with point guards and his work is paying dividends in his second year at the helm. Redshirt senior guard Dexter McClanahan, whose first season at Nicholls coincided with Claunch’s arrival, is a dynamic scorer who put his skills on full display in an overtime loss at Illinois on Tuesday with 25 points and three assists in 39 minutes of action. 

Junior guard Kevin Johnson is another Claunch product who can pass and defend with the best. Johnson, a native of Thibodaux, is not the score-in-bunches guard that McClanahan is, but has averaged 2.6 steals and 4.9 assists per game. 

But outside of Johnson and McCalahan, the Colonels have thin depth. Senior guard Elvis Harvey Jr. scored 16 points against Illinois, but was the only other Colonel to record double-figure scoring. 

And after having to account for the height and length of Florida State, Pitt can expect a less imposing opponent on Saturday. Physically, the Panthers should experience little trouble overpowering the Colonels, who list only one player taller than 6-foot-8. 

So while the focus entering Wednesday’s game was how the Panthers’ big men would stack up against the Seminoles, it’s now the backcourt’s turn to step up on the defensive end. Pitt’s guards will need a firm defensive effort to contain the playmaking abilities of McCalahan and Johnson. 

That said, the Panthers cannot overlook Saturday’s matchup after an emotional win this past week. Pitt head coach Jeff Capel affirmed that sentiment following Wednesday’s win over Florida State.

“We have a very quick turnaround in a noon game on Saturday against a team that’s pretty good and almost won at Illinois,” Capel said. “We have to enjoy this, but we have to be mature about it and be ready to move on.”

Pitt welcomes the Colonels for a noon tip-off Saturday from the Petersen Events Center.  

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