Northern Kentucky defeated UIC 71-62 on Tuesday night to claim the 2020 Horizon League Tournament Championship and earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The victory caps off a hard-fought Horizon League season for the Norse, who had to overcome significant injuries to multiple star players to get to this point. Now the Horizon League’s relatively early tournament means that the Norse will have to wait most of a week to find out who they’ll play in the Big Dance.
In the meantime, we’ll take a look at what could await Northern Kentucky following Selection Sunday and how the Norse might be able to become America’s Sweetheart next week.
Team: Northern Kentucky University Norse
League: Horizon League
Record: 23-9 (13-5 in Horizon League Play)
Projected Seed? 15 – OK, so right now NKU is projected to be a 16-seed on the Bracket Matrix. But 10 one-bid leagues have NCAA Tournament representatives projected above the Norse that have yet to earn their way into the tournament. As Northern Kentucky is currently projected as the top 16-seed, a single Cinderella run through a conference tournament gets the Norse to the 15 line. Based on past seasons, a single significant Cinderella from one of 10 conference tournaments is incredibly likely.
Where could they play? As a team that looks like it’ll wind up a 15-seed – or potentially the top 16-seed – it seems like the Norse will more than likely be a bit further away than Indianapolis for this year’s NCAA Tournament.
If the season ended today, NKU’s projected opponent on the Matrix would be Dayton in a game played in Cleveland. With the state of emergency declaration in Ohio due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the drastic measures that have followed, it would create a strange situation for the Norse heading into the NCAA Tournament.
With that said, Dayton seems to be the only team on the top two lines that is likely to wind up in Cleveland and there are far too many conference tournaments to play to assume the current seedings will hold. There would seem to be a better chance that the Norse are sent west to face San Diego State or Creighton or sent east to face Florida State, Villanova or Duke.
How will they win? Alright, realistically as a 15 or 16 seed they won’t win. In the team’s two Power Conference road games – against Missouri and Arkansas teams far worse than whichever team they’re going to play next week – Northern Kentucky was relatively competitive, but went 0-2. The NCAA Tournament game would be at a neutral-site venue, but there’s a significant gap between a Power Conference team that misses the tournament and one of the eight best teams in the country.
Compared to the NCAA Tournament field, Northern Kentucky is basically what IUPUI is to the Horizon League. If their top couple players shoot the lights out in the same game they could do damage, but the odds of that are slim. IUPUI pulled some nice upsets in Horizon League play, but they had 19 chances. NKU has one.
The greatest hope for Northern Kentucky would seem to be guard Tyler Sharpe and forward Dantez Walton both getting hot at the same time. It’s hard to leave Horizon League Tournament MVP Jalen Tate out of that equation given that he missed 11 games and still made Third Team All-Horizon League this year, but the lack of a consistent outside shot means that the league’s Defensive Player of the Year may be best served acting primarily as a defensive stopper and a decoy. He’s an excellent distributor for a 6-foot-6 wing and could focus on working to lock down the opponent’s best perimeter player while taking what the defense gives him on offense.
One glimmer of hope for the Norse is that like Tate, Walton missed 11 games and that Walton’s injury came just as Tate was shaking off the rust. The Northern Kentucky team heading to the NCAA Tournament is healthier and stronger on paper than the team that NKU has had for most of the season. NKU won’t necessarily prove to be your typical 15 or 16-seed. The downside of that is that it doesn’t help the Norse get an easier first round opponent. The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups, and a three-seed for an opponent would likely be preferred to what NKU is going to be facing (last year’s National runner-up notwithstanding).
Why will they lose? Post play and depth. You could write both of these for basically any team seeded near the bottom of the bracket since Kyle O’Quinn’s 15-seed Norfolk State took down a guard-heavy Missouri in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, but it’s definitely fitting for the Norse. Following the graduation of 2019 Horizon League Player of the Year Drew McDonald and the transfer of Chris Vogt – who played a limited role at Northern Kentucky but has seemingly settled into Division I basketball as a quality starter at Cincinnati – the Norse are incredibly thin in the post.
Silas Adheke – a 6-foot- 8, 245 pound junior – and Adrian Nelson – a 6-foot-7 220 pound sophomore – would need to find a way to play extended minutes against what will likely be the best frontcourt that the Norse face all season. Adheke and Nelson combine to play a little over 30 minutes per game, but would likely need to go for at least 20 minutes each in order to avoid the opponent being able to get a free two points in the paint every trip. If Northern Kentucky’s two best defensive options in the post aren’t able to go the distance, Walton likely needs to slide down and risk getting into serious foul trouble that NKU could ill afford
Outlook? This will likely look a lot like Northern Kentucky’s previous two trips to the NCAA Tournament. The Norse have some talent that could make an opponent work hard to get the victory, but it’ll be a more lopsided matchup than any that the team has faced this season. It’s okay for NKU fans to have a little hope; the team has a good deal of talent that allowed it to overcome a lot and come out in a decent position heading into the NCAA Tournament. But the best course of action is to soak in every moment from now until the final buzzer next week.
If NKU becomes the next Norfolk State or Florida Gulf Coast? Fantastic. If not? It was a hell of a run.