HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - Northern Kentucky University’s men’s basketball team made history Sunday as it knew it would after clinching the Horizon League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Norse (24-10) were awarded a 15-seed in the Big Dance and will play No. 2-seed Kentucky (29-5) in a South Region opener on Friday in Indianapolis. (Tipoff approximately 9:30 p.m. EDT on CBS).
It was too juicy a match-up for the Selection Committee to pass up, but it won’t be the teams’ first meeting.
The Bluegrass State foes played in a 2004 exhibition at Rupp Arena (Kentucky won) and then in a regular-season meeting on the same floor in 2013. The then-No. 1 Wildcats dominated that one, too, 93-63.
So what gives NKU the best chance of pulling an upset in the NCAA tournament and extending its record-breaking season? (Even though UK opened as a 19-point favorite).
Quite simply, playing a perfect game and having a whole lot of luck. One of the team’s fortes has been made 3-pointers (8.6 per game) but it will also need to minimize turnovers, hang tough on the glass and play its best defense of the season.
Kentucky claimed the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship Sunday by beating Arkansas. John Calipari’s team has won 11 straight games. And the Wildcats’ pedigree as a college basketball blueblood is so entrenched in the state that some Norse players may be fans, too.
The bigger picture benefits of the Norse’s first NCAA tournament bid are greater than the specifics of the first opponent. The program will be able to parlay the win into important building blocks, from better non-conference scheduling to a more robust pool of recruits that aspire that can propel its aspirations.
Sustaining success will be the next challenge – but that’s a discussion for a later day.
Although the odds are exceptionally long for the Norse, the program in many ways has already won. Second-year coach John Brannen has engineered the second-best turn-around in the country based on wins, taking a team that last year went 9-21 to the biggest stage of all.
NKU wasn’t expected to get this far in its first year of Division I NCAA tournament eligibility after reclassifying from Division II, but that was before the team won its final three regular-season games and dispatched Wright State, Youngstown State and Milwaukee in Motor City Madness, the Horizon League Tournament.
To say the Norse’s achievement is huge would be an understatement. Only six other schools have ever earned a Division I tourney berth in their first season eligible.
In November, Brannen knew he had a special team but also a young one, so he approached the campaign with tempered optimism. His main goal was improvement. He simplified his system to make it easier for players to consume, implementing one press when he normally would have started with three.
Ditto with zone defense. For the sake of the young group, Brannen focused on one instead two.
Although Brannen said realistically it would take three to four years to build a true Horizon League roster, the current Norse group is longer, faster and more capable of playing all 94 feet than even last year’s team.
With standouts like sophomore Drew McDonald (16.4 points per game, 7.7 rebounds) and junior Lavone Holland II (14.3 ppg, 4.1 assists) leading the way, the team has established a new Division I-era record for wins. It also stunned the conference tournament field as the fourth seed.
Regular-season leaders Valparaiso and Oakland bowed out early in the conference tourney, giving the Norse an optimal path through the bracket. After delivering the title, Norse players joyfully celebrated. Just one year earlier they’d ended the season on a seven-game skid.
McDonald said at the season’s start that there simply “was nothing at the end of the road” before postseason eligibility came to fruition. The team’s No. 1 goal since last season has been reaching the NCAA tournament.
While pride and excitement have brimmed in Norse Nation for days, most fans saw the program’s potential long before the Horizon League finale. NKU ranks 87th in the latest NCAA RPI, second in the conference to Valpo (72), and has a win over the Crusaders, too.
And now the Norse are lacing up their dancing shoes.