Towering ‘true’ centers give foes reason for concern

Amber North

In college hoops, they are an endangered species. Coaches anxiously go after them as soon as they’re spotted because they are a rarity to capture.

When seen on the court, opponents are in awe because no one is used to seeing them, especially not in pairs.

These rare specimen – “true” centers – are the 7-footers on the hardwood who have been missing in action in most collegiate lineups.

Western landed two for this season.

Senior transfer Nigel Dixon, listed at 6-feet-11-inches and 329 pounds, left his former habitat at Florida State after three years to enter the Hilltoppers’ lineup as the starting center. Backing up Dixon is 7-foot freshman Josh Higgins.

When former Topper Chris Marcus left last season, it left a gaping hole in the middle.

“Western has a great history of developing big men, so I know there will be expectations to live up to,” Higgins said.

Many big name universities wanted to grab a chance at the Dayton, Ohio native, including Cincinnati, Xavier and Ohio State.

“I wanted to get away from home,” Higgins said. “When I visited Western, I loved the campus. The people are great and it’s a great, winning program.”

When Dixon approached his last year at FSU, he wanted to redshirt so he could work on slimming down his weight, when he tipped the scales at 430 pounds.

But the new head coach, Leonard Hamilton, wanted him to play.

That’s when he looked into Western.

“I made the decision that I wanted to work on my weight,” Dixon said. “I chose Western because it’s a good program with a good coaching staff.”

Even though Dixon knew he would have to sit out for the season, there was still some pent-up anticipation.

“There wasn’t much I could do,” Dixon said. “I wanted to help the team, and I couldn’t wait until the next year.”

Over the summer Dixon worked out at the LGE Sports Academy in Orlando, Fla., his hometown, where he conditioned for six hours a day doing drills and individual workouts.

He also altered his diet by not eating fried foods, shrinking his body fat to nine percent.

“Nigel has had the best off-season I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been around some hard-working kids,” coach Darrin Horn said. “What he has done takes a lot of commitment and he’s going to move better and last longer.

“He’s not carrying a small child on his back anymore.”

Dixon also went to Venice, Italy last summer for a basketball tour organized and coached by Bill Van Gundy, father of Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and Miami Heat coach Stan Van Gundy.

There, Dixon averaged 20.1 points per game and 10.9 rebounds per game. And he shot 62 percent from the field.

“Bill had nothing but great things to say about him,” Horn said. “I give him all the credit.”

Both Higgins and Dixon were recruited by former head coach Dennis Felton, who left for Georgia at the end of last season.

They admit they had mixed emotions about Felton’s leave, but both said they understood.

“That’s life – everything’s not going to go as planned,” Dixon said. “Horn is a great coach and I’m just as happy.”

Horn’s run-and-gun offense is different from Felton’s half-court style, but the two centers are ready for the new system.

“It’s all new for me because we slowed down at half-court in high school,” Higgins said. “I’m adjusting to the up-tempo style.”

Despite Marcus leaving, as well as losing power forwards David Boyden and Nate Williams to eligibility, the tandem’s presence in the paint shouldn’t be a problem.

But don’t expect to see a twin towers exhibit on the court, because it is unlikely that Higgins and Dixon will be on the court at the same time, especially with a three-guard rotation expected to be the norm.

“Josh is a freshman still learning, and I’ll try to help him out as best as I can,” Dixon said.

The one sure thing is that the two are excited to start their first season with a Western logo stitched on their jerseys.

“I want us to do well, and with this staff we’ll be really good,” Dixon said.

Reach Amber North at [email protected]