Craig Nicholson’s eyes open, like clockwork, at 6 every morning.
This is an ingrained behavior, something he has been doing since he was 4.
He could not stop, even if he tried.
“My roommate thinks I’m crazy,” Nicholson said. “My dad, he started getting my little brother and I up for shooting and dribbling workouts when we were really little and that’s just what we did. I can’t sleep in, I can’t stay in bed. I feel like I’m wasting my day.
“If we have practice or a game that day, I’ll watch ‘SportsCenter’ and study. If we don’t, I’ll do the workouts my dad put together.”
Nicholson’s work ethic has paid off in big ways the last few years, starting with two Eagle All-Metro selections at Northwest and bleeding into this year, his freshman season at Fort Hays State, where he’s already one of the best point guards in the MIAA.
Nicholson, 5-foot-8, leads the MIAA with 7.4 assists to go with 13.4 points headed into this weekend. The Tigers are 14-6 and 8-4 in league games.
He’s been named MIAA player of the week twice, including last week after posting double-doubles in points and assists in wins over Central Oklahoma and Missouri Southern.
“We recruited Craig to be the starting point guard, we’ve always had the confidence he could come in and get the job done,” Fort Hays State coach Mark Johnson said. “The other guys on the team understand he makes them better when he’s out there. He is quiet, humble and only draws attention to himself with how he plays. That work ethic everyone talks about … that’s because of his parents and (Northwest coach) Chris Collins. And because of his size, he plays with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, which I like. I like having guys going out there trying to prove people wrong.”
Nicholson’s size becomes less of a talking point the more success he has, although it always hangs in the background. His younger brother, Aaron, is a sophomore guard at Northwest.
“People always told me (Craig) was too small, that he could never play college basketball,” said Craig’s father, Wendell Nicholson, a Wichita police detective. “And one day, after years and years of those mornings in the gym, I stopped a workout and told my boys that very rarely had I seen anyone doing what we were doing, putting in the work we were, and that I thought in the end that would be the most important thing.
“Any success Craig and Aaron have had, they’ve come by it honestly.”
When Division I schools passed on Craig because of his size, Collins was instrumental in getting him to Fort Hays State with Johnson, who was an assistant at Phillips College when Collins played there in the 1990s.
“Craig is in the right place, with an amazing coach and an amazing fan base,” Collins said. “I think he’s just scratching the surface of what he can be. I think you see what he’s doing already in that league and there are coaches out there kicking themselves for not signing him. I think the college game suits him so well because of how aggressive he is on defense and how much faster the pace is.
“The most important thing is the work ethic, though, which his parents instilled in him at a very young age. He attacks every day, every day he wants to get better ... he is driven, to say the least.”
Nicholson, who likes to pattern his game after Clippers point guard Chris Paul and Michigan guard Trey Burke, has a decidedly simple plan when it comes to his future in Hays: Work, work and more work.
“My dad, he’s not really the lovey-dovey type, but the one thing he’s always told me was that if I keep working hard, in school and basketball, that it was going to get me pretty far,” Nicholson said. “And that’s the message (Johnson) has been giving me, too, so that’s where I keep my focus.
“I want to bring my best every game we play, and I want to work my butt off for my team and help us get wins. That’s what’s important to me.”