Coming into the matchup against Gonzaga, we talked about how one of the Bulldogs’ starting guards, Nolan Hickman, would finally make his debut at Rupp Arena. Hickman was committed to Kentucky for nearly a full year (August 2020 to May 2021) before backing out of his National Letter of Intent — the first recruit to do so in the John Calipari era at UK.
Now in year three of his college career, the former Wildcat signee got to play in Lexington for the first time this weekend. In fact, it was his first time being in the city — due to the global pandemic, he wasn’t even able to visit UK during his high school recruitment. He ultimately wound up at Gonzaga and is playing his best basketball in 2023-24.
If you were someone who guessed that Hickman would come into the Rupp Arena with a chip on his shoulder, congrats. You were dead on.
The 6-foot-2 floor general was hunting for shots from the jump. He scored the first points of the game for Gonzaga in the Bulldogs’ 89-85 win over Kentucky on Saturday night and had six of his team’s 13 in the opening four minutes of action. By the time it was all said and done, Hickman finished with 17 points and five rebounds in 37 minutes. He was a team-high +6 in the box score.
“Nolan did a great job managing the game tonight,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said postgame.
Hickman said he was expecting to receive a couple of boos from the Big Blue Nation once he arrived, which he did during introductions. But that was as rough as it would get from the home fanbase. It’s also hard to boo a guy who is playing well and on the winning team.
In the postgame press conference, Hickman didn’t use his moment to taunt his “former” team either. Instead, he was grateful for the experience and used it as an opportunity to praise the jam-packed Rupp Arena, which was once again at its best in spite of the tough defeat.
“Great atmosphere, man. Great atmosphere,” Hickman said. “That’s what college hoops is about. Just coming and doing what we do at different arenas, different atmospheres. (Rupp Arena is) right up there with The Kennel (Gonzaga’s home arena). It was amazing, I love crowds like that. Great experience.”
This wasn’t Hickman’s first time going up against Kentucky (he was on the 2022-23 Gonzaga team that beat UK in Spokane 88-72), but his performance in round two was a far cry from round one when he posted just four points, two assists, and two turnovers on 1-3 shooting in 28 minutes. Even if he wouldn’t say it out loud, he certainly had some extra motivation going into Rupp Arena.
For Kentucky fans, Hickman’s big night was just another twist of the knife in what has been a devastating couple of weeks for the Wildcats.