HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- John Brannen roams the sidelines at a Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball practice, doling out a steady stream of motivation and instruction.
“Come on, boys. We’ve got to get better,” Brannen urges as players execute a 5-on-0 drill at BB&T Arena in Highland Heights.
The Norse’s program has drawn attention after a promising start featuring a halftime lead over Illinois and back-to-back wins over Delaware and Miami University, but the second-year NKU coach has consumed the buzz with a heaping side of caution.
On this particular day, for example, some top players are participating in only a quarter of the drills following three games in three days in the Tarkett Sports Classic. Most of the Norse are underclassmen, which requires Brannen to remain largely in teaching mode.
His main concern is improvement.
“(KenPom.com) has us down as the 322nd youngest team in the country. Right now we’re starting two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior,” Brannen said. “We’re focused on competing and playing hard. Execution is going to come second.”
He has simplified things to give players a break, like implementing just one press. With an experienced team, he would teach three presses. It’s a similar situation with zone defense – he would typically use two types, but for the sake of the youthful group, they’re focusing on just one.
That’s the life of a coach in his first years of building a program, and this particular program has undergone an inordinate amount of change. Hired in April of 2015, Brannen inherited a Norse team near the end of a transition from Division II to Division I.
That wasn’t the only wrinkle for the Covington native and Newport Central Catholic grad. About a month after Brannen was introduced as head coach, NKU ended its three-year affiliation in the Atlantic Sun Conference and joined the Horizon League.
The switch was a boon for financial and travel reasons, but it also left Brannen scrambling to match the caliber of league play. In 2014-15, the Horizon League finished 16th in the country in Conference RPI. The A-Sun was 30th.
In the meantime, star recruits like Drew McDonald wondered if they were committed to the right school. Although McDonald’s family maintained a long presence at NKU, the former NewCath star and Kentucky Mr. Basketball finalist briefly thought about re-opening his recruitment.
McDonald had signed on to play for Dave Bezold, who was fired a month before Brannen’s hire.
Brannen called McDonald the night he got the job. After that conversation, the 6-foot-7 forward was convinced that NKU was the place for him.
“I knew Coach Brannen was going to get this program going in the right direction,” McDonald said. “He was determined for success. He was going to do anything it took to get us there and made me feel like I was a major part of that.”
That first season was bumpy. The Norse went 9-21 and finished on a seven-game losing streak.
The second season has been a contrast thus far. One, Brannen’s family – wife Lisa and kids Jaylee and Katelyn –have relocated to Alexandria after finishing up the last school year in Alabama. Two, he has been able to take a different approach with the program.
“What I focused on the first year was culture-related in terms of how we want to run our practices, how we want to do our everyday activities. It became very obvious that I had to put in the style of play more my second year. That’s what we’ve done,” Brannen said.
“Anybody that comes to our practice now, they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re long. Athletic. You look different.’ We now have the team that can play the style of play of 94 feet, pressing and getting up and down the court the way we want to.”
This year, for the first time, NKU’s sports programs are eligible to compete in NCAA tournaments. Since the reclassification process is complete, the Norse could conceivably win their conference tournament and punch a historic ticket to the Division I Big Dance.
The women’s soccer team was the first to achieve that feat just weeks ago, and McDonald said that’s the proverbial carrot the men’s basketball team is chasing, too.
“Last year, as much as you didn’t want to say it mattered, we knew after the conference tournament we were done. There was nothing at the end of the road. Our No. 1 goal – Coach said it the first day we all got here – is the NCAA tournament,” McDonald said.
For now, there are more pressing things on players’ minds. After being picked seventh in the Horizon League preseason poll, McDonald said the Norse are eager to prove they’re better than the prognostication.
Realistically, it will take three to four recruiting classes to build a Horizon League roster. But Brannen loves the potential and play-making abilities of the current players, who will set the tone for this season and beyond.
“This is a sign of what’s coming,” Brannen said of NKU’s program. “It’s just going take time.”