Northern Kentucky University's game vs. Kentucky is special for Todd Svoboda, who played for both

CINCINNATI -- When the brackets were revealed, when it became clear that it would actually happen, that Northern Kentucky University would face off against mighty Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday night, one man cheered louder than the rest.

Because he knew just what it was like to be a Norse and a Wildcat.

Remember the name Todd Svoboda? Many Wildcat and Norse fans do.

"It was so cool to see them matched up," said Svoboda, the former Princeton High School standout who played three years at NKU before transferring to Kentucky in 1992. "I mean, I'd seen the two teams play before (they faced off in 2013 in Lexington with UK winning 93-63), but I never thought I'd see them get to play each other in the NCAA Tournament."

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Svoboda, a 45-year-old father of three, is now a senior engineer in environmental compliance for the East Kentucky Power Co-op. He lives in Winchester, Kentucky, and he's also a big fan of the Norse and the Wildcats.

"I was able to watch NKU's games in Detroit on TV and it was real fun to see them get to their first NCAA Tournament," he said. "And when I heard they could be paired up with Kentucky? You bet I was excited. It's great for them and the program. Look how excited those kids were to play Kentucky."

Svoboda, the son of a chemical engineer, blossomed his senior year at Princeton and was able to play basketball and tennis at NKU.

“He was my very first recruit,” said former NKU head basketball coach Ken Shields. “I had just come from coaching high school to being hired at NKU, and we needed some players. I went through my first year with the previous coach’s recruits, so he was the first I recruited.”

Svoboda was a 6-foot-9-inch center who could shoot. Tragically, his mother died from cancer when he was in high school. His father, who played tennis at Purdue, also succumbed to cancer after he graduated college. Svoboda wanted to be a college athlete like his father. NKU, then in Division II, needed players, and the school had the perfect program -- a 3-and-2 partnership with Kentucky that allowed NKU students to transfer to UK after three years.

After three years he would do just that. But no one foresaw he'd be such a good Division II athlete. In 1991-92, in his third season, he averaged 18.1 points and 10.9 rebounds at NKU. He even won the Great Lakes Valley Conference championship in tennis, playing singles No. 5.

Academics would take him to Kentucky, and after trying out for one of the most talented college basketball teams in the country, then-coach Rick Pitino gave him a spot as a walk-on. Those 1993 Wildcats went on to earn a spot in the Final Four.

So Svoboda knows what it's like to be the heavy favorite, as well as what's it's like to be the underdog.

"Kentucky has to recognize that NKU is a tournament team," he said. "You have to take one game at a time. If you don't come ready to play, you're going to get bounced early."

NKU has no pressure, he says.

"They can play loose and just have fun," he said. "They can't get caught up in who they're playing. I'm sure there are Kentucky kids who want to play UK but they have to just be loose and play their game."

Svoboda has been an underdog in another way, too. At age 42 he found a node on his knee. It was osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer mostly found in teenagers or the elderly. It wasn’t hereditary; Todd said doctors told him it was just bad luck.

He went through six rounds of chemotherapy and had his knee -- along with some of the bone -- replaced. Scans have been clear since then. It looks like once again, Svoboda is a winner.

"So far, so good -- we're tickled about that," he said.

But the question remains: Who will he root for Friday night? UK or NKU?

"I hope both teams come out and play well," he said, diplomatically. "I'm excited for these NKU kids. I think Kentucky can go a long way. If everyone plays hard and plays well I'll be happy."

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