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Nicholls State is burning the boats and not looking back

Second-year head coach Richie Riley has Nicholls State in the hunt for their first conference title in 20 years.

NCAA Basketball: Nicholls State at Villanova Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It was around this time in 1998 that the No. 1 movie at the box office was Titanic.

It was also around that same time in 1998 that Nicholls State last won the Southland Conference title and made the NCAA tournament.

The 2017-18 version of the Colonels find themselves in uncharted waters, sitting on top of the Southland Conference with a 10-2 record, 16-9 overall, with just six games to go in the regular season.

Second-year head coach Richie Riley has created a mantra for his team that has acted as a motivational tool for his players all season: “burn the boats.” Considering his program’s ironic link to the film Titanic, the mantra should be seen as quite fitting.

“We’re burning the boats so there are no excuses and no option to return,” Riley said. “There is no way home.”

Nicholls has made major strides in the Southland since Riley took over. He has turned around a program with only one winning season in the last 20 years into a conference contender, and one of the better kept secrets in all of college basketball.

Nicholls is Riley’s first head coaching job, and he came to Thibodaux, Louisiana after two years as an assistant at Clemson, where he earned a reputation as a top-notch recruiter. One of his first recruits to make an immediate impact is 6’4 senior guard Roddy Peters, whom Riley called a “difference maker.”

Peters, a former top-50 recruit, is well traveled. After playing in 32 games as a freshman at Maryland during the 2013-14 season, he transferred to South Florida, where he only played in 10 games before being sidelined with a foot injury. He was dismissed from South Florida a few months later before eventually landing at his third school in four years.

Peters has made the most of his opportunity at Nicholls, as he is leading the team with 19.2 points per game, good for second in the conference behind Central Arkansas’s Jordan Howard (25.8 PPG). Peters is also in the top 10 in the conference in several key statistical categories, including assists per game (3.8), field-goal percentage (.535), assists/turnover ratio and defensive rebounds per game (5.2).

At just 35 years old, Riley is still one of the youngest head coaches in the country, but has been the driving force behind a significant turnaround. He led the Colonels to a respectable 14-17 record during his first season, after the program had averaged just under 11 wins per game the previous five seasons. He said that he had to develop a little more patience in the process heading into his second season.

Despite the turnaround at Nicholls, Riley doesn’t seem interested in declaring the 2017-18 season a success already. He’s instead focused on the remaining six games left in the regular season and the conference tournament in March. Currently, four teams — Sam Houston State, Southeastern Louisiana, New Orleans and Stephen F. Austin — sit on the Colonels’ heels with three league losses each.

“The gauge of success is winning championships and people think I’m crazy for saying that but that’s what burn the boats is about.” Riley said. “Its about maximizing your success.”

In the film Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack asks Kate Winslet’s Rose, “Where to Miss?” She responds, “To the stars.”

It’s already been an outstanding season for Nicholls, but if the Colonels continue their recent form, they could get their opportunity to reach for the stars in the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades.

Hopefully they don’t hit an iceberg along the way before they have an opportunity to burn the boats.