HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Last season Northern Kentucky University’s men’s basketball team blazed its way to a Horizon League Tournament title and an NCAA tournament bid in its first season eligible after reclassifying from Division II.
Now the Norse have their sights set on the Sweet 16.
And why not? John Brannen’s team returns 77 percent of its offense, including top returning scorer and Horizon League preseason player of the year Drew McDonald, and a collective desire for better results.
“That’s one of our goals, to get back (to the NCAA tournament) this year -- and not only just to get back there but to advance to the Sweet 16,” McDonald said Tuesday at BB&T Arena.
“And we know as a team, we know as a coaching staff and a program that that’s possible. But we’ve just got to come in and work every day because there’s going to be 300 other teams out there with the same goals, the same mindset. We’ve got to do something that makes us different.”
NKU already stands out. A year after being picked to finish seventh in the Horizon League, coaches, sports information directors and media members slotted it second in the league’s newest preseason poll.
The Norse garnered national attention last March when facing Bluegrass State brethren Kentucky in an NCAA tournament first-round game. The second-seeded Wildcats won, 79-70. But that exposure, 12 wins in the final 15 games and the league tourney title have bolstered NKU’s credibility.
Instead of flying under the radar and surprising opponents, this edition of the Norse is squarely in the spotlight. The progression requires NKU to improve under pressure and on bigger stages, as three regular-season games will be on ESPN2, ESPNU or the SEC Network and another 18 will be accessible on ESPN3.
“We talk about the target on your back. That’s a good thing,” said Brannen, the reigning Horizon League coach of the year.
“We want to create expectations. We want to become a program of expectations and I think our guys sense that. The bottom line is our schedule is a lot tougher this year. We’ve got some things that we’ve got to go through. But I think that pride and wearing that NKU jersey and being a part of this community is something our guys thrive on.”
NKU hosts Urbana in a Nov. 4 exhibition and opens the regular season at home Nov. 10 against East Tennessee State before hosting Wilmington two days later. Then it’s on to Nassau for three games in the inaugural Islands of the Bahamas Showcase.
One of the team’s first major tests will be in the Nov. 25 true road game at Memphis.
Ten Norse players return from last year’s 24-11 (12-6 Horizon) group. Junior forward McDonald (16.4 points per game, 7.7 rebounds) and senior guard Lavone Holland II (14.5 ppg, 4.1 assists) are key veterans.
Holland, who averaged 19 points and 5.6 assists in the final seven games alone, said confidence has bolstered the team thus far in the preseason. Senior forward Jordan Garnett pointed to chemistry as a boon.
“We all get along together on and off the court. We can get on each other and tell each other the truth, and that makes us better as a team and better as individuals,” Garnett said.
Newcomers include 7-foot center Chris Vogt and 6-foot-4 guard Paul Djoko. Brannen said the freshmen are learning the offense and defense and defined roles will be set after the next 15 practices.
Although NKU has a long way to go until March, the start of this season has ushered in anticipation beyond the locker room. There’s a buzz all over campus about this team’s potential.
“(People are) asking when basketball season starts and that’s never been like that in my two years here,” McDonald said. “They’re asking when’s the first game, who we’re playing. And just to see that excitement, I hope it draws a bigger student section, bigger crowds, and it’s just fun to be around.”
Season ticket sales are up 66 percent from last year. There are 1,200 season ticket holders and counting for 9,400-seat BB&T Arena.
Brannen believes the Norse are capable of filling the arena but is more concerned about making program improvements and growing as a team. The coveted fruits of those labors -- another Horizon League Tournament championship and an NCAA tournament bid -- remain atop a proverbial mountain.
“Every team starts at the bottom of the mountain. So I told our guys there’s three ways we can get up this mountain: I can drag you up -- which isn’t going to be fun for you or I -- we can go up divided or we can go up together. And that’s the biggest thing,” Brannen said. “We restart, we’ve got a new team, we’ve got a new identity. Now we have to go up the mountain together.”