Malachi Nix is 5-foot-6 going on 7 feet tall, at least if you measure leadership and determination and guts by the size of your Michael Jordans. Hey, he remembers when he was 5-foot-3, 125-pound running back on the freshman football team. By those standards, today he looks like Paul Bunyan.
Nix grew up playing baseball and football. He gave up baseball in seventh grade and stopped playing football after his freshman year. While working out with the varsity basketball team, however, he was inspired by coach Glenn Olson, who also was struggling to make a name for himself.
"He is a great motivator," Nix said. "He said to me: 'I know you are undersized but what I look foris how you lead on the basketball court.' That inspired me. It showed he had genuine care for me. I bought into his philosophy. He was all about winning and getting better every day. I wanted to be part of something special."
In their fourth year together, Olson and Nix are on track to accomplish something that the Skokie school has never experienced--qualify for the Sweet Sixteen. Since its first varsity season in 1964-65, Niles North has won only three regional championships and one sectional title. And three of the four were claimed by Olson in the last two years.
"There is no reason why this team can't be the best I have coached," Olson said. "Our slogan is: 'Put we before the me.' We have the ability to play good pressure defense. And we go nine or 10 deep with not much drop-off. We also have some very skilled guards who are good with the ball in their hands. They make you look good as a coach."
Niles North is 13-3 going into Friday night's game against Glenbrook North. The Vikings lost to highly rated Notre Dame by two points in the final of the Wheeling Hardwood Classic, snapping a seven-game winning streak.
In last Friday's 67-55 victory over Deerfield, Nix scored 18 points while B.J. Beckford and J.J. Myles each tallied 14, Lorenzo Dillard 10. The Vikings converted 12 three-point shots along the way.
On Tuesday, in a match-up of conference leaders, Niles North of the Central Suburban North smashed Prospect of the Mid-Suburban East 82-57 as Dillard scored 22 points, Beckford 21 and Billy Voitik 15. The Vikings show 11-of-13, scored 27 points in the first quarter and built a 41-25 halftime lead. Nix left with a knee injury in the first half but is expected to return on Friday night.
"It was a blessing in disguise," said Olson, explaining why and how depth is the strength of his team. "Two of our four returning starters (from a 21-9 sectional finalist) missed the first seven games and another missed the first four games for disciplinary reasons. The other guys got opportunities to step up and get more experience.
"It gave us some depth and an ability to play good pressure defense. Lack of size is a problem so we must rely on pressure defense and speed and quickness and play with pace. We force 20 turnovers a game. We get into trouble when we allow teams to run their offense and dictate pace. The key to success is to maintain tempo and keep opponents off the boards."
The lineup features Nix (19 ppg, 4.5 assists), a four-year starter; Dillard (12 ppg, 5.5 assists), a 6-foot-1 senior who missed the first 22 games last season because he was academically ineligible; Myles (5 ppg), a 5-foot-8 junior; Beckford (13 ppg), a 6-foot-3 senior; and 6-foot-4 senior Billy Voitik (8 ppg, 7 rpg). The team's tallest player, 6-foot-5 sophomore Danilo Ranger, comes off the bench.
Each player has a role. Nix defends the opponent's best scoring guard. Dillard, a pure passer and outstanding defender, shares the point guard duties with Nix. Olson said Myles is the best on-ball defender he has coached. "He sets the tone for what we do defensively," Olson said.
Olson has made great strides in a short time. A Rolling Meadows graduate of 1994, he studied at Western Illinois and Northeastern Illinois, then coached at Maine East before being hired at Niles North.
"I loved Maine East," he said. "But it was time for a change, another challenge. It was the right time to make a move. It was a huge push athletically."
His first team was 12-15 but progress was swift and rewarding. His second team was 24-7 and lost to Warren in the supersectional. Last year's 21-9 squad lost to Evanston in the sectional final.
"I felt we advanced farther than we should have last year," Olson said. "The good news is we have winning expectations now."
Beating Notre Dame would have been a signature victory. Nix and his teammates will remember that disappointing experience as they brace for the remainder of the season, as they seek to make history.
"We were really stoked to play Notre Dame but we came up short," Nix said. "We didn't rebound well enough. They got too many offensive rebounds. I fumbled the ball with four seconds left when I tried to call a timeout. I don't know if the referee saw me. Dillard had to take a half-court shot at the buzzer but it hit the rim and bounced off.
"What did it show us? We have to be a better rebounding team. We can't take any plays off or take anything for granted. We could have won if we executed throughout the game. But we made too many mental mistakes. It showed we can be a really good team.
"Notre Dame is a top 10 team and we didn't play our best basketball but we still were there with them. We have a lot of potential and we can go pretty far this year. This team is really talented. I look at it as this is my last year. It is time to do it, time to make history."
Nix describes last year's sectional loss to Evanston as "our worst night of the year...attitude, shooting, defense, every aspect of the game. The seniors have to lead, starting with me. We've all been there. The juniors and sophomores have to buy into it and be ready to play every night. Everybody is on the same page. Everybody has the same goal, the same dream. We want to be the first team in school history to get to the state finals," he said.
Meanwhile, Nix has a personal goal. He wants to play in Division I. He has no scholarship offers. But he has attracted interest from Northern Illinois, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Chicago State from Division I, Wayne State from Division II and Augustana and North Central from Division III.
Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye describe Nix as "one of the ore unheralded guards in the class of 2013."
"Above everything else, we label him as a scoring point guard. He has strong leadership qualities, plays hard and can be a possible low Division I prospect. It is important for him to find the right fit. A lot of people overlook him because of his size and because he doesn't play at a high profile basketball school," the Schmidt brothers said.
"Every night, I feel I have to prove something to some people. Some don't think I can play at the Division I level," Nix said. "I want them to know I can play with Division I players. I want to play in Division I. But I will play at the best situation I can.
"I want to show college coaches that I can lead a team, play defense, shoot well and pass, that I'm a good playmaker. I am a point guard. I know coaches are asking: 'Can a 5-foot-6 kid play at our level?' So I play with a chip on my shoulder. People don't think I can play so I have to show them.
"I wanted to be part of something special. We talk about it every day in practice. Not many kids are winning like we are now."