Lazar Nikolic didn’t get the word until warm-ups. So for a young man making his first start at the Division I level half a world away from home, there was no time to get nervous.
As hinted by head coach Tad Boyle earlier this week, the leader of the Colorado men’s basketball team tweaked his lineup during Wednesday night’s 75-57 home win against New Mexico, giving Nikolic the first start of his career while also starting sophomore Deleon Brown for the first time this season.
Nikolic, a 6-foot-7 freshman guard from Serbia, responded with the best all-around game of his young career, recording season-best totals of seven points and eight rebounds. Nikolic played 27 minutes after playing no more than 15 in any of the Buffs’ previous seven games.
“I knew I had to step up and help the team win,” Nikolic said. “It was definitely a great feeling to earn the trust from the coaching staff.”
Nikolic went 3-for-5 from the field — also a season-best total of made field goals — while committing just two of the Buffs’ season-high 23 turnovers. He jump-started the Buffs’ game-changing 12-3 run in the second half with a 3-pointer and an alley-oop dunk from Brown. In the past two games Nikolic has gone 5-for-7 from the field, and through eight games he has posted 11 assists against five turnovers.
“Laz is our best rebounding perimeter player outside of McKinley (Wright),” Boyle said. “When your two point guards rebound the way they did tonight, you’re pretty pleased. Laz got the start because he’s rebounding the ball for us. Del got the start because he’s one of our best perimeter defenders.
“Everybody’s going to play. We’ve got a 10-man rotation. Every night it’s going to be maybe a different guy. I thought Laz was terrific. He’s a guy I feel very comfortable with both defensively and offensively. Our team functions pretty good when he’s in the game.”
In his second game back following a two-game absence due to an ankle injury, sophomore forward Lucas Siewert was a little more effective than he was during an abbreviated six-minute effort in Saturday’s loss at Colorado State. Siewert played 16 minutes off the bench, recording three points and three rebounds with one blocked shot, one steal, and one turnover.
However, Siewert’s limp became more pronounced as the game wore on. It would benefit the Buffs greatly if Siewert can make similar strides before Saturday’s date at No. 13 Xavier as he did in the four days between the CSU and New Mexico games.
“I took him out at the end because he was limping. If he starts limping, I’m going to take him out,” Boyle said. “If he’s not healthy, he’s not healthy. We can’t go into Xavier limping. They’ll punch it right down our throat.”
CU’s 58 rebounds against New Mexico was the club’s top total since recording 61 against Stetson on Nov. 24, 2002…Brown had recorded just three turnovers in 144 minutes this season before committing a career-most five. Brown had never recorded more than two turnovers in any of his previous 38 career games…The double-doubles by George King and McKinley Wright marked the first time two CU players accomplished that feat since King and Wesley Gordon against Washington on Feb. 13, 2016…Junior guard Namon Wright shook off a 7-for-27 shooting performance over the previous three games to go 4-for-7 with nine points and five rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench…At 3-6, New Mexico is off to its worst start since the 1979-80 season. That year also was the last time the Lobos lost in Boulder, a 86-78 CU win on Dec. 1, 1979.