This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our latest installment in the piece took a look at Mount Saint Mary’s from the Northeast Conference. You can also check out the first piece that featured South Dakota. The next program up is Nicholls State basketball. Austin Claunch is the man in charge for the Colonels, having just completed his third season in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
Claunch joined the Nicholls program as an assistant in the summer of 2016 and was elevated to the head job in 2018. The Colonels have risen in each of his years of leadership. Nicholls State jumped from ninth to second in his second season. The 20 wins by Nicholls State basketball in 2019-20 was just the fourth such season in program history. Then, this past season, he led the Colonels to the Southland Conference’s regular-season title. It’s a safe bet that if the season hadn’t been shortened, Nicholls would’ve won at least 20 games again. Claunch talked to me about how his group pushed through adversity to make their title run.
The Story of the 2020-21 Nicholls State Basketball Program
Leaning on Veterans
It’s no secret that preparation for last season was few and far between for programs across the country. Teams were doing what they could under the circumstances that were provided to them.
“Different parts of the country had different protocols and different degrees of freedom,” Claunch said. “We tried to stay creative and just communicate and work as much as possible with what we had and under the regulations we had.”
Even with everything feeling different and restrictions in place, Claunch felt he had a group that was ready to face whatever was thrown at them.
“I think one thing that really helped us is that we had an older group,” stated Coach. “We had a veteran group. I thought one thing that, from the start, we talked about and embraced was that, at the end of the day, there was going to be a lot of adversity.”
“We talked about it in our very first team meeting that the team that responded best to those challenges and obstacles was the team going to be left standing at the end.”
Perhaps Coach Claunch was foreshadowing what was ahead for his own group.
Embracing the Pause
Nicholls State basketball tipped off their season out in California, going 2-3 in their first five games, which were all played within one week. Claunch emphasized the importance of being able to get those games played early on.
“It was really a blessing for us to go out there and get those games when we could,” he said. “At some point in the season you were most likely going to have a pause. So, for us to be able to get those games under our belt, get the film, and start to develop roles and just kind of an identity…we learned a lot about our team and our guys.”
“Most likely going to have a pause” became a reality for Nicholls State basketball in early December. However, Coach felt that didn’t keep his team from improving.
“We were getting on the bus to go to Baylor when our pause hit,” stated Claunch. “I thought we got so much better during the pause, and that sounds crazy because you couldn’t do anything. We met with guys over Zoom and had coaching meetings over Zoom where we could really sit down and dissect the film…to start to put together a plan of moving forward of who we are as a team.”
As Nicholls’ pause came to an end, they were able to pick up a game with LSU right after Christmas. The Colonels gave the Tigers all they could handle before falling 86-80.
“We were able to schedule LSU probably 48 hours before the game, maybe less,” Claunch said. “I think we had one practice, but we played one of our best games all year. At the end of the day, you had to be willing to play anyone anytime anywhere.”
Coming Out Stronger
After that LSU contest, it was time for Southland Conference play to begin. The league went a different route than many other mid-major conferences, opting not to play back-to-back contests. Instead, they shortened the schedule from 20 games to 16. Eliminating four games meant there were four schools each conference member wouldn’t play this year.
“Obviously, for us, you want to play everybody all the time,” Coach said of the scheduling change. “At the end of the day, the Southland made decisions that we thought were best for the whole league in terms of playing games. I don’t remember the exact number, but there weren’t a lot of canceled games. It speaks highly of the conference and the teams in our league.”
Claunch had told his team to embrace the season at every turn, and this was especially important during conference play.
“At the end of the day, we’re always going to play the schedule in front of us,” he stated. Whoever’s across from us that night, we’re going to try and show them the best Nicholls.”
The Colonels finished league play at 14-2, capturing the Southland’s regular-season title behind its depth and balanced scoring attack.
“It’s great to have guys off the bench that can jump up and score as many as anyone,” said Claunch. “I don’t know how many starting lineups we had this year, but I know it was as many as anybody in the country. It wasn’t just one or two guys that came off the bench. Sometimes guys started and sometimes they came off the bench. It really speaks to the unselfishness of our program and to our guys as a whole.”
Nicholls State basketball ultimately came one game short of their NCAA Tournament goal, falling to Abilene Christian in the conference championship game. However, that doesn’t diminish what the Colonels were able to accomplish in an adversity-filled season.
“I think anytime you’re able to win a championship in college basketball, I’m not sure people truly appreciate how hard it is to win,” noted Claunch. “There’s so much that goes into winning at a consistent level. For these guys to do that on the court as well as all the obstacles thrown at them off the court, that speaks volumes to their mental toughness and belief.”
Coach was also proud of how his team came together and developed leadership throughout the season.
“As the season went on, our leadership continued to grow,” he said. “There were times where I’m looking down the sideline and I can see one of our players on the court coming over and having a conversation with a player on the bench about something. It’s really comforting as a coach when you know you have a team that can lock in and understand what the goal is.”
All of that leadership and maturity helped bring the Colonels’ second regular-season title in four years to Thibodaux. Claunch acknowledged that, while those are great accomplishments, he knows they’re closer than ever to getting that goal of hearing their name on Selection Sunday. The current trajectory of the Nicholls program under Austin Claunch suggests they’ll get there soon enough.