Reed Nikko has never been one to bask in the glory of college basketball’s limelight.

The senior has played in front of 20,000-plus at a sold-out Rupp Arena in Kentucky and competed in the NCAA Tournament, but Nikko never considered it possible to pursue a pro career until his success this season.

Nikko had been a role player with the likes of Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon ahead of him on the depth chart in years past. That is, until the Tigers needed the center to be one of their torch bearers.

This winter, as Porter had departed to pursue the next level and Tilmon was sidelined with a stress fracture, Nikko was called upon to hold the MU frontcourt together.

While that venture hasn’t always been smooth, the last several games have shown he’s had game-changing potential all along.

It was just a matter of when he would unleash it.

Missouri senior Reed Nikko spoke about being the Tigers’ lone senior ahead of tomorrow’s regular season finale. pic.twitter.com/m6lbxqGLDu

— Eric Blum (@ByEricBlum) March 6, 2020

Nikko is the Tigers’ only senior, and he’ll be honored on senior day before Missouri’s regular-season finale on Saturday against Alabama. Tip-off is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at Mizzou Arena.

Nikko estimates more than 30 family members and friends will be in Columbia for the occasion.

“I'm really excited. For a lot of my family, it will be the first time that they've been able to come here and see me play,” Nikko said. “... I'm really just going to try to take it all in and just appreciate every moment of it, but yes, it's starting to keep me up at night a little bit.”

Nikko’s journey from Maple Grove, Minnesota, to a fan favorite at Missouri hasn’t been conventional, but those who know “Big ‘Sota” best believe the path fits.

“Our roles have changed a lot since we got here as freshmen,” MU junior Mitchell Smith said of Nikko.

Smith and Nikko are the two holdovers from Kim Anderson’s coaching tenure at Missouri.

“Me and Reed have learned a lot just from different coaches that we had here,” Smith continued. “We’ve grown as people being here. I've seen a big change in Reed. At first, he was quiet. He really didn’t talk to people that much. But now Reed has come out of his shell. He likes to talk now.

“He likes to be around people and he's a great person.”

Peaks and valleys

Nikko earned his first Division I offer after his freshman year of high school. It was from North Dakota in 2013 after he stood out at a Fighting Hawks summer camp.

One day later, Russ Nikko, Reed’s father who was known by Reed’s friends as “Coach Russ” because he coached them in various sports growing up, died from an unexpected stroke.

“I think the two biggest things he taught me: Never complain and always do your best, just work hard,” Nikko said of his father’s lessons. “Those are the two things that you can control. I think those really have stuck with me. I hope when this is over for me, that people remember me as a guy that was a hard-worker and a guy that just put his head down and just worked. Those are definitely values that he instilled in me.”

Nikko heeded his father’s advice before and after his passing. While not only improving his skills on the court but also setting himself up for success in academics, Nikko taught his younger brother, Parker Nikko, useful skills he learned from Russ such as tying a tie and shaving facial hair.

“My pregame routine is I always think about (my dad) and say ‘thank you,’ asking to kind of watch over me. I always do that when they play the anthem. It's the last thing I do literally before every game. I always put him in the front of my mind for a second before we start and then I guess every time I put on my jersey, I like to think I'm representing him.

“So it's always kind of at the forefront of my mind.”

Nikko said it’ll be bittersweet to not have his father on Norm Stewart Court with him on the day of his last home game. Russ believed his eldest son could be a Division I basketball player even before the now-6-foot-10 Reed did.

Still, Nikko is thankful for the opportunities he has had in Columbia and will make sure to have one final go-around with his anthem tradition inside Mizzou Arena.

A message for Big 'Sota #ToTheFinishLine pic.twitter.com/zyma0WPRUn

— Mizzou Hoops (@MizzouHoops) March 6, 2020

Turbulent Tiger

Nikko was one of the top-rated prospects from Minnesota in the Class of 2016 and joined Missouri for Anderson’s final season leading the Tigers.

MU went 8-24 his freshman year, including a 2-16 mark that tied for last in the Southeastern Conference.

Nikko underwent surgery on both his hips from nagging injuries in the months leading up to his arrival on campus, initially limiting his practice time.

Looking back, Nikko believes it would have been a wiser decision to redshirt the 2016-17 season to regain his strength. Another setback occurred early into his first collegiate season with an ankle injury.

Nikko has had four surgeries since signing with Missouri, including a wrist operation. During practice on Halloween 2018, he suffered a broken nose trying to take a charge in practice courtesy of Kevin Puryear, an incident that was clearly an accident between two good friends.

Anderson’s firing crept doubt into Nikko’s mind of his future in Columbia, but after meeting current Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin, he knew the Tigers were still the team for him.

“Coach Martin definitely never was one to play favorites. He favorited the players that played hard. I think you’ve always seen that,” Nikko said. “So he definitely made that transition easy, but it felt like being a freshman back-to-back years.”

The rise of Big ‘Sota

Nikko didn’t consistently break into the starting lineup until after Tilmon’s injury this winter. Now, the starting center spot appears to belong to Nikko for the rest of the season, even with a healthier Tilmon.

“I used to talk to him about it all the time. Before games, he used to always say, ‘Go in there, go hard, I got your back!’ And now I’m saying it to (him),” Tilmon said. ‘Now you are out there playing, I got your back. You got to go out there. This is your spot now. Don’t be looking at it like you’re the back-up big. You’re starting, bro. This is your position. Demand it.’

“I really like telling him to feel comfortable with it and take ownership of it.”

Nikko has started the last 19 games for the Tigers and seen his points per game average this season increase from 1.7 to 5 after Wednesday’s loss at Mississippi.

“It's been such a sharp turn how the year was going to how conference play has been,” Nikko said. “Going from not really playing too much at all, just kind of being that good-guy role player, to then being a starting player and just kind of playing probably my best basketball of my career throughout conference play has been insane.”

Nikko entered this season believing this was his last ride playing the sport competitively and that he would move on to finishing his fisheries and wildlife degree.

He admitted earlier this week that because of his success in conference play, a future in basketball is still on the table. That’s a far cry from a guy that’d been a role player coming off the bench for three years.

Nikko’s block of Georgia’s Anthony Edwards to secure the win over the Bulldogs in January may have single-handedly changed his athletic trajectory after Georgia head coach Tom Crean couldn’t stop complimenting him during his postgame news conference.

The spotlight on Nikko will be bright against Alabama, but he deserves this shining moment.

Forever & always #MizzouMade.

Big 'Sota wouldn't trade his time in CoMo for the world.#ToTheFinishLine pic.twitter.com/o5kqlddP4E

— Mizzou Hoops (@MizzouHoops) March 5, 2020

Nikko stepped up when the Tigers needed him most, and they’ll need him to finish this season on a positive note.

“I'm going to try to just look at all the options once the season's over,” Nikko said. “I don't want to get too ahead of myself. The biggest thing that I've been just trying to do lately is just appreciate everything that's happening right now and just really take it all in.

“I know it's going to be over sooner than later, so I'll try to sort all that stuff out, like what the next step is, once the season's over. But for now, I'm trying to put that on the back-burner and just keep Mizzou basketball in the front of my mind.”

eblum@columbiatribune.com