Catching up with Northern Kentucky University men's basketball coach John Brannen

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- The dust has settled on the Northern Kentucky University basketball team’s surprise run to the NCAA tournament in its first year of eligibility after reclassifying to Division I.

Now, coach John Brannen said, the work really starts.

Having a core of returning players will allow Brannen to punch up the Norse’s system with more complex elements, like additional presses and plays. Last fall he spent a great deal of time teaching his newcomer-dominated team his preferred style and terminology.

The Norse’s schedule remains a bit in flux due to the recent departure of Valparaiso to the Missouri Valley Conference. The Horizon League for now consists of nine schools.

Brannen sat down recently to talk about the offseason and what’s ahead for the Norse.

What has your life been like since NKU’s season ended?

JB: Busier. A little busier offseason in terms of more things to do, more opportunities to sell our brand a little bit more. People want to hear more about Northern Kentucky men’s basketball, which is a good thing. I really enjoy that. Probably our brand’s a little more noticeable now in the community. But the best part about it insofar as just seeing how excited the people of Northern Kentucky have been about this team and where the program is headed. That’s the part I’ve appreciated the most.

The time between winning the Horizon League Championship and playing Kentucky in the NCAA tournament must have been a whirlwind. Looking back, what was the best part of that experience?

JB: When our guys took ownership in January of this team and just really began playing for each other, and watching the growth of this team was the best part by far. I think if any coach is really honest with you and is really transparent, they would say, ‘The process of what you go through.’ When you are in it, it’s just an everyday thing. And then when you sit back and you look at it, you’re like, ‘The best part by far was how our team continued to evolve throughout the season, the ownership, the excitement level of playing for each other every day.’ I made a comment that after the Kentucky game was over, if they would have offered another tournament for us to go play in, I would have accepted because I enjoyed coaching that team.

NKU celebrates after winning the Horizon League tournament championship. (Matt Sexton/WCPO Contributor)

Reaching the NCAA tournament in your first year eligible is a rarity. Is that a blessing or a curse, now that the bar is set so high so quickly?

JB: Yeah, the bar is high and the expectations are a lot higher now. I’d rather have expectations high than expectations low. That’s kind of the approach we’ve taken. I’d love for this program to take the next step beyond a regional program and become a national program. Now there’s a lot of steps that go in between to do that and we’re in the process of going through those steps right now. Expectations are a good thing. They’re better than the alternative.

How does returning an experienced core of players affect next season’s team?

JB: Well, it’ll be interesting. I think you look at it in two ways. I think one, success usually breeds more success because you understand what it’s about. Now this team has to understand what it is to be hunted a little bit. Last year we were picked at the bottom of the league and we were trying to give everybody our best shot. Now we’re in a situation where there will be more expectations on this team so it will be an opportunity for teams to go after us a little bit. That’ll be new. That’ll be something we have to prepare for this summer and into the fall. So it’s both ways -- yes, we have the experience of winning and there’s nothing that replaces that. You’ve got to have that. But then we are also venturing into new territory, which we’ve got to be prepared for. Xavier goes through it every year, UC goes through it. They’ve had sustained success. This program hasn’t had success like that.

Did you see the season’s success coming?

JB: We constantly harped on playing our best basketball March 3-7 (the Horizon League Tournament). And because we put that in our guys’ minds earlier in the year, they knew that no matter what ups and downs we had over the course of the year, that as long as we kept getting better, we had an opportunity to play our best basketball. That was our goal. I think talking about that all season long and really building into that became who this team was about. It was something we talked about since the beginning. So to say I was surprised, no, because I didn’t put a ceiling on this team. To say I saw it coming, I don’t think any coach sees everything coming. I think I saw parts of it coming in January and February.

How can you harness that momentum for next season?

JB: By getting this much better every day (Brannen indicated an inch) in terms of accountability, in terms of increasing our standards. So we’re going to hold each other accountable more this summer than we’ve ever had and were going to increase our standards so that we can continue to get better. We have a saying in our program: “You either get better or you’re not. You’re not staying the same.” So every day we’ll evaluate whether we got better today or we got worse today because we’re not staying the same.

When NKU ascended to the national conversation with the NCAA tournament bid, coaches like Rick Pitino and John Calipari sang your praises. Was there any coach or statement that stood out to you?

JB: Archie Miller made a comment one time. He said, ‘I’ve watched them for two years and they have a system in place and they continue to get better. You can tell that what they do, they’re doing for a reason.” I thought it was an insightful comment from someone who actually pays attention to our program.

Personnel changes have shaped next season’s roster. Seven-foot freshman Chris Vogt arrives while Brennan Gillis and Brandon Maxwell have been granted releases and Cole Murray and walk-on Matt Rosenwinkel have graduated. What is your scholarship situation now?

JB: At this point we have 10 filled (out of a possible 13). We’re actively recruiting still. (Returning some experience) is very different than last year. We had nine guys that had never played Division I basketball. This year we don’t have a lot of experience still but we have all those guys pretty much coming back. We have seven of our top eight guys coming back. We have two to-be-seniors that contributed a lot in Lavone (Holland II) and Jordan Garnett and then our team is mainly sophomores and juniors. We’re still young in the eyes of a roster make-up in terms of class but we’re obviously a little more experienced in terms of our system. The guys coming back that played heavy minutes last year have a pretty good feel for what we do.

Star guard Lavone Holland III will be a senior for the norse next season. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

What’s next for the team?

JB: We get eight weeks in the summer. All schools get two hours of basketball development and six hours of strength and conditioning. We’ll start ours (this) week. I’m ready to get them back. I’m excited about taking the next step with them. Because we advanced into the NCAA tournament, we had a shorter spring workout. We only had about 2.5 weeks in the spring with them, postseason. So I’m really excited about implementing some of the things we need to get done for the year. I’m most excited because the terminology is already in place so they know what we’re saying. Now we need to build on that. 

CAMP TIME

Brannen will host two basketball camps this summer for kids ages 6-16. The John Brannen 2017 Summer Day Camp first session is June 19-22 while the second session is July 24-27. Both are from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the cost is $200. For registration and information visit JohnBrannenBasketballCamp.com or email director of basketball operations Tony Rack at racka2@nku.edu.

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