LEXINGTON, Kentucky – Gonzaga’s Nolan Hickman is looking forward to his first visit to Rupp Arena, which sounds odd to hear from someone who originally committed to Kentucky.
The backstory begins with Hickman orally committing in August 2020, but this wasn’t a typical recruiting process.
Hickman learned about UK’s campus and renowned Rupp Arena through pictures, videos and descriptions from the coaching staff, due to COVID pandemic restrictions.
“I never physically visited the campus,” the junior guard said a few days before Saturday’s showdown against the 17th-ranked Wildcats. “Me and my family had online visits, Zoom. It was during COVID times, that’s the only reason why. It probably wasn’t a good representation of how big (Kentucky basketball) is, I just tried to get the gist of it.”
Hickman, a McDonald’s All-American ranked as a five-star recruit by ESPN, decommitted from the Wildcats in April 2021, shortly after a couple of changes on head coach John Calipari’s staff. Hickman had strong connections with Tony Barbee, who took over as Central Michigan’s head coach, and also with Joel Justus, who left for an assistant coaching position at Arizona State.
Gonzaga was the first to get in touch with Hickman, a Seattle native who played his final prep season at Wasatch Academy in Utah. He quickly committed to the Zags.
After coming off the bench as a freshman behind Andrew Nembhard, Hickman moved into the starting lineup last season and now starts alongside Ryan Nembhard, Andrew’s younger brother.
Hickman had four points and two assists in last year’s 88-72 victory over the Wildcats at the Arena. Gonzaga, ranked No. 2 at the time, was led by 66 combined points from Drew Timme, Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton. Oscar Tshiebwe, now splitting time between the Indiana Pacers and the G League, paced No. 4 Kentucky with 20 points and 15 rebounds.
Hickman said it’ll be interesting to hear the reception from the crowd Saturday when he’s announced with Gonzaga’s starting five, but he’s eager to play at one of college basketball’s most iconic venues.
“Yeah man, I’m really excited,” Hickman said. “It’s kind of a bummer they didn’t come to the Kennel last year, but it’s always a great opportunity to play in front of all those fans.
“I’m not quite sure (how fans will react). Maybe get a few boos when I touch the rock.”
Because of the way his recruiting unfolded during the pandemic, Hickman doesn’t know any of the current Wildcats and he’s only had contact “through social media” with freshman Rob Dillingham, the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer at 15.5 points.
Gonzaga freshman guard Luka Krajnovic also has a connection with the Wildcats. Krajnovic and Kentucky’s 7-foot-2 center Zvonimir Ivisic know each other through youth basketball in their native Croatia.
Krajnovic recently returned from a broken hand. Ivisic, who was cleared to play by the NCAA three weeks ago, had a memorable debut with 13 points, three 3-pointers, five rebounds and three blocks in 16 minutes against Georgia. He’s seen limited time since, partly due to injuries.
Hickman and Nembhard figure to match up against Kentucky’s guard line that includes Dillingham, Reed Sheppard, Antonio Reeves and D.J. Wagner, the latter a five-star recruit sidelined by injury for the past three games.
“Really talented, play with a lot of freedom, really guard heavy,” Hickman said. “It should put us to the test.”
Same goes for the rest of the Zags, who are 0-4 against teams that have spent time in the AP poll, including current No. 1 UConn and No. 2 Purdue. Kentucky was in the top 10 before losing at home to Florida and Tennessee last week.
“We definitely need this win, just to set us back on track and have that confidence going into March that we can beat these ranked teams,” Hickman said.