Northern Kentucky Norse men's basketball team could make NCAA tourney in first year eligible

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- With a Division I reclassification in the rearview mirror, Northern Kentucky University's men's basketball program is finally eligible to compete in March Madness.

Now the Norse just have to play their way into a bid.

That's no easy feat, considering the Horizon League sends only one team to the NCAA tournament by virtue of an automatic bid. The victor of the conference tournament -- or Motor City Madness, which is March 3-7 in Detroit -- must outlast a cadre of peers determined to claim the prize.

WATCH: Norse win SportsCenter's Stars of the Night for Friday night's win over Illinois-Chicago:

John Brannen's group has amassed an impressive resume in his second year at the helm, more than doubling its win total from a year ago. The Norse (21-10, 12-6 Horizon League) knocked off league co-champion Valparaiso 82-78 Sunday and tied Green Bay for third place in the league standings. NKU, the fourth seed, will play fifth-seeded Wright State next Sunday.

NKU on Friday reached the 20-win milestone for the first time since 2011-12. Drew McDonald scored 27 points with nine rebounds in a 90-82 victory over the University of Illinois at Chicago at BB&T Arena. McDonald was also the top scorer against Valpo with 23. Lavone Holland II had 17 points and nine assists.

"I'm extremely pleased with the results of the men's basketball team so far," athletic director Ken Bothof said. "It certainly is a strong statement as to how well John has meshed our freshmen with some of the returning players."

Indeed, it has been quite a turn-around since last season's 9-21 campaign. A team that finished eighth in the Horizon League a year ago has won nine of its last 11 games behind McDonald (16.9 points per game) and  Holland (13.5).

Lavone Holland II is NKU's leader in assists and second-leading scorer. (Colin Johnson | The Northerner)

The Norse rank 118th in the latest NCAA RPI, or third among Horizon League teams.

Brannen said NKU isn't looking beyond the game in front of it. But the chance to play in the postseason? That would be a "good next step" for the program in its first year of eligibility, he said.

"I'm not sure if many people really have that opportunity," Brannen said.

Valparaiso is penciled in as a 13-seed in Jerry Palm's NCAA tournament mock bracket on CBSSports.com, and the team is a 14-seed in Joe Lunardi's bracket on ESPN.com.  

NKU's Cole Murray splits the defense for a shot against Wright State. (Colin Johnson | The Northerner)

It's possible that NKU could face Valpo in the conference tournament as well.

NKU men's hoops hasn't won a conference tournament since the 2008-09 season when it was still in Division II and the Great Lakes Valley Conference, so running the tables in the Horizon League would be a major milestone.

"I think right now for the brand of Northern Kentucky basketball, I think there's an excitement level around our team and our university -- our crowds are amazing this year -- and I think the next step of going the postseason the first year you're eligible would just create more excitement," Brannen said.

If NCAA tournament possibilities vanish via a loss in Detroit, the Norse are poised to play in other tournaments like the National Invitation Tournament, College Basketball Invitational, CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament or Vegas16. Bothof said the university is preparing for all options.

NKU's women's soccer team made history by winning the Horizon League last fall and securing a university-first Division I NCAA tourney bid. A parallel bid for the men's basketball team would generate a huge buzz for the program and school while making a hefty impact on recruiting.

"Basketball is a little different animal on the men's side, as competitive as the Horizon League is and as competitive as Division I is," Bothof said. "I think it's truly exciting for everybody to see us with the opportunities that we have and get some more of that national recognition and discussions with these postseason tournaments."

As NKU builds on its Division I-era program wins record, it has the chance to control its own destiny and join the postseason conversation for the first time since 2012. That team played in the DII NCAA tournament Midwest Regional and lost in the first round.

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