At 5-foot-6, Niles North's Nix thinks big

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At 5-foot-6, Niles North's Nix thinks big

Malachi Nix is only 5-foot-6 but he thinks big. Niles North's junior point guard wants to play college basketball and his dream schools are Kentucky, Kansas and Baylor. He is anxiously waiting for his first telephone call from a major Division I coach.

"As a freshman and sophomore, I used to wish I could grow to 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4," Nix said. "As a sophomore, I was 5-foot-6. I think I'm taller now. My mother thinks I will grow. I wear size 12 shoes.

"What would I tell college coaches who think I'm too small? I say I have great leadership qualities, I can score, I can distribute the ball and I try to emphasize intangibles. I work harder every day to get better and I help my teammates to get better."

Nix is averaging 18.5 points and 2.3 assists for an 18-7 team that started 3-4 but has won 15 of its last 18 and its last 11 in a row in the wake of last Friday's 55-51 victory over Deerfield.

The Vikings, who are seeded No. 7 in the Glenbrook South sectional, will meet top-seeded New Trier on Tuesday night in their regular season finale. Last year, they were 24-7 and lost to Warren 56-50 in the supersectional.

Niles North coach Glenn Olson doesn't think Nix is day-dreaming. "He will be a scholarship basketball player. And there is a great possibility it will be at the Division I level. He has great skills. He can break down defenders and distribute the ball," Olson said.

"His height is a hindrance in coaches' minds. But if they watch him over an extended period of time, they will see his positives more than make up for his lack of size. He is a tough kid. His competitive edge separates him from others."

How tough is Nix? In elementary school, he played football, basketball and baseball. At Niles North, he was a 5-foot-4, 110-pound running back on the freshman football team. He was pretty good, too, running for 15 touchdowns to tie the freshman record.

"I loved football but I lost my passion for it," Nix said. "I love basketball and what coach Olson is doing with the program. Last year, I averaged 10 points per game. My role was to score when I could but mostly distribute the ball and get it to Abdel Nader (who averaged 25 points per game last season and currently is a freshman at Northern Illinois).

"But this is my team. At the beginning of the season, the coach told me it is my team. He said I have to be a better leader, more vocal. I've been in the system for three years. I have to show others what they should be doing. I let them know I have been there, I've been to the supersectional, I've done what we want to do as a team. They sit and listen to me."

In his third year as head coach, Olson has put together a solid program at the Skokie school, which had won only one other regional in its nearly 50-year history prior to last year. A 1994 graduate of Rolling Meadows, Olson, 35, grew up as the son of a coach and later coached baseball at Maine South. In fact, his father is now his assistant.

"I fell in love with the game of basketball as a kid. I grew up in the great age of ESPN and I read about Indiana high school basketball," said Olson, who was a freshman B basketball coach at Maine East in 2000, then the head coach in 2007-09 before moving to Niles North.

"I was impressed with what was going on athletically at Niles North, the emphasis on strength and conditioning," he said. "These kids play hard. They are undersized and inexperienced. Only two of them saw the floor last year. But they have accepted their roles. And we have skilled guards who can make plays."

Nix and 6-foot-1 senior Michael Henley (12.3 ppg), who missed the first seven games with a broken hand, and 5-foot-9 senior Jaylen White operate in the backcourt. Up front are 6-foot-4 junior Billy Voitik (5.9 ppg) and 6-foot-1 junior B.J. Beckford (10 ppg).

Coming off the bench are 5-foot-10 senior Eron Washington, who is the backup center, and 6-foot-1 junior guard Lorenzo Dillard, a transfer from Evanston who only recently became eligible.

"If we are going to go deep into the playoff," Olson said, "we must play with great energy and share the ball, which is our strength. We must recognize what a good and a great shot is and play at our pace regardless of the defense. We like to get up and down the floor."

Meanwhile, Nix has learned to deal with his limitations.

"The 5-foot-6 thing is in their (college coaches) minds. It doesn't bother me. I have learned to deal with it," he said. "The most difficult thing on the court is when I get to the lane, I have to be crafty to score against 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-5 opponents. I have to work on floaters and pull-up jump shots, different ways to get the ball to the basket."

Nix watches 5-foot-9 Pierre Jackson of Baylor and 5-foot-11 Ryan Boatright of Connecticut on TV and admires what they do and how they do it. He takes careful notes in his mind. He hopes to be as successful as they have been--and hopes to play at their level.

"They are vocal on the court and get their teammates in good positions to score and be successful," Nix said. "They also are versatile. They can score and pass and are great defenders. They are very coachable, too. I like locking a kid up on defense and I get my adrenaline up when I get a steal and make a basket."

He already has attracted the attention of some colleges. He will attend Cal Poly's elite camp in August. Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wayne State, and Western Illinois also have been recruiting him.

But he wouldn't mind getting a call from John Calipari or Bill Self.

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

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USA TODAY

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

It's not something that's been said often over the decades, but Northwestern is one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

That's the story the standings tell, and with another week of the 2016-17 season in the books, the Wildcats sit at 5-2 in conference play, good for the second-best mark in the league.

That fifth conference win came Sunday afternoon with a 74-72 defeat of Ohio State. It was the first time Northwestern won in Columbus since 1977.

This is the first 5-2 start to Big Ten play for the Cats since 1968. So is this the first time ever the Cats get an invite to the NCAA tournament?

Of course that remains to be seen, but Chris Collins' squad sure seems to be setting itself up for inclusion in the field of 68. Sunday's win was just the latest to come away from Evanston, and in seven conference games, four of the team's five wins have come in road games, including three straight at Nebraska, Rutgers and Ohio State.

Northwestern had to find a way to win Sunday. A couple surges in the first half took the Cats from modest deficits to a lead that grew as big as eight. The halftime advantage was five, but that slipped away quickly as Northwestern shot poorly after halftime. Ice cold is a better descriptor, the Cats struggling to get their field-goal percentage above 30 percent over the final 20 minutes. It got there eventually, the team finishing shooting 32.3 percent in the second half, but it was the work from the free-throw line that made the win possible. Over the final 20 minutes, Northwestern was 14-for-16 from the charity stripe, including going 11-for-12 over the final minute and a half.

The key stretch came when a Scottie Lindsey 3-ball broke a 56-all tie with four and a half minutes to play. Ohio State countered with a bucket, but freshman point guard Isiah Brown turned in back-to-back scores of his own, the second a breakaway layup off a steal. That made it a five-point lead, and though the gap shrunk over the game's final three minutes, Northwestern's free-throw shooting allowed the Cats to hold that lead the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot at the free-throw line. They were 12-for-23 on the game, and all but one of the attempts came in the second half, making for 10 missed free throws over the game's final 20 minutes. Northwestern committed a lot of fouls, but Ohio State couldn't capitalize, something that has to be quite painful for the Buckeyes, considering they had edges in other statistical categories. They shot 45.6 percent from the field compared to the Cats shooting 37.5 percent. Ohio State also had 16 second-chance points and 28 points in the paint. But Northwestern had 17 points off 13 Ohio State turnovers.

Lindsey finished with a game-high 21 points and has scored in double figures in every game this season. Bryant McIntosh had 17 points, and Vic Law had 10. Jae'Sean Tate scored 14 points for Ohio State, with JaQuan Lyle adding 13, Trevor Thompson scoring 11 and Cam Williams putting in 10.

The win was Northwestern's fourth straight and boosted its overall record to 16-4 to go along with the 5-2 mark in the conference. The Cats next play Nebraska on Thursday.

The loss snapped a modest two-game win streak for Ohio State and dropped the Buckeyes' record to 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. They next play Minnesota on Wednesday.

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."

Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.

The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.

"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.

"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.

“Obviously [I want to] get back and playing the same way,” Kruger said. “First I want to get healthy and then get back playing my best and do everything I can for the team.”