Horizon League Tournament: Through the Eyes of Norse Report

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What a week. 

It started with what I thought was going to be yet another memorable week of college basketball on the court, and while the week ended up being memorable, it was other news that grabbed the headlines…

No, do not worry, we will not be discussing the COVID-19/Coronavirus outbreak at length in this article. This will be about the Horizon League tournament, and my experience with it.

The tournament offered me the opportunity to be credentialed and sit on press row — the opportunity of a lifetime. I have only gotten the chance to do this once before, at Miami (OH) for an NKU road game, but this experience far and away surpassed that. I am eternally grateful to the HoriZone RoundTable for allowing me to go to the game and be their media representation. 

Equally, I am grateful to the Horizon League for recognizing the importance of fan media and allowing us to be there on press row. It felt great to be treated like a voice that mattered, and truthfully, it will motivate me to cover this league in a more complete capacity moving forward, assuming we can get more writers for Norse Report.

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In this breakdown, I want to discuss the outcomes from the games, some fun stories and experiences from the ‘weekend’ and any changes that I might suggest. I have quite a bit to discuss, so let’s get to it!

Here’s a podcast breakdown I did of the experience:

The Games and Outcomes

Many fans threw a fit when the tournament was announced to be taking place in Indianapolis, Indiana. Given that the venue was set to be the exact location in which IUPUI plays their home games, many fans thought this was a completely unfair circumstance. Me, personally – I was thrilled. I’d much rather have seen the tournament be played in Cincinnati, don’t get me wrong but Indianapolis was a good second place.

  • It’s close to Cincinnati/NKY
  • It’s a nice city to visit
  • IUPUI MBB was ZERO threat to be competitive in the Horizon League, much less make their own Final Four
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So personally, I was thrilled about going to Indy. I asked for the time off from work in January, and I booked my AirBNB the night the Norse Women’s team clinched the 4 seed (the men had already clinched the 2). I just knew both teams would make it. I was planning to cover the men’s games for HZRT anyway, but I knew that if the women made it to Indy, I’d need to be staying there. All-in-All, I’d hoped to watch 5 of the 6 games that were played, but I ended up seeing 4 of them. Here’s what I witnessed.

Monday

Monday was CRAZY. Flat out, that’s really the only way it can be described.

NKU WBB Loses in Gut-wrenching Fashion 

At 2:30 pm, I witnessed the NKU Women’s team lose in heartbreaking fashion to the Green Bay Phoenix. After going on an 11-0 run with under 4 minutes in the 4th quarter to take a 1-point lead, Green Bay and NKU traded baskets, maintaining NKU’s 1 point lead heading into the final possession with 6 seconds left. Coming out of a timeout, Green Bay, who had the ball at halfcourt, due to the WBB “timeout advances the ball rule” got a great play drawn up and got the ball in the hands of perennial all-Conference guard Frankie Wurtz who put a shimmy move on Kailey Coffey and then finished with a left-handed reverse and only 3 seconds left on the clock. It was over. NKU’s season just ended on 13-4 run.

1-Seed Still Cursed

Later in the evening UIC and Wright State tipped off. This 7 pm game ended in yet ANOTHER top seeded upset, marking the 5th Horizon League tournament in a row where the top seed did not win the entire tournament. Behind Tarkus Ferguson’s 25 points, the Flames yet again stole one away from the Raiders, becoming the only team to beat WSU twice on the season. The theory all season was that “Jordan Blount would be the Loudon Love stopper” but Blount logged just 5 minutes and had 4 fouls during that time. Regardless, as nonsensical and unpredictable as it seems – that’s just the Horizon League for you. UIC advanced.

My Sister’s Keeper: NKU MBB Defends NKU WBB’s Honor

In the nightcap Monday night, the Norse men’s team got to take on the Green Bay Phoenix and exact their revenge for the Women’s loss earlier in the day. The 9:30 tip saw a diminished Norse crowd, but the turnout was still relatively strong. The Norse shot poorly for most of the game, before finally ending the game hot from 3. In fact, the Norse were 3 for their first 17 from 3-pt range, which was just over 17%. This did not bode well for the Norse, as they are 0-4 this season in games that they shoot under 20% from 3. Luckily for NKU, they would finish out the game 3 for 5 from 3-pt, ending 6/22 – 27%. The Norse ended up with the best stat of the night though, an 80-69 advantage. After sticking around long after the game to talk to players and meet with other media members, I noticed something that broke my heart. 

https://twitter.com/KyleCraven_NR/status/1237240507585179649

I caught Manny Patterson sticking around, long after the game, mourning the loss. It was really sad to watch, as the senior Forward played his final game of his career that night.

Tuesday

After 10 hours of basketball, I was ready for more. Unfortunately tip-off for the championship game wasn’t until 7 pm, and media credentialing didn’t start until 5 pm. After killing a LOT of time (literally)

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I made my way to the arena, donning my best and most NEUTRAL Horizon League gear, ready to cover the game!

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Norse Take Home 3rd ‘Ship in 4 Seasons

The Norse went into the half with a 10 point lead and essentially controlled the rest of the game. For much of the second half, the Norse operated with a double-digit lead, and when it was all said and done, the Norse hoisted their 3rd Horizon League championship trophy in 4 seasons. This was such a special moment to witness as a fan who was forced to be objective for 2 days, something that does not come naturally for me.

The Games Were Great, But What About the Experience?

My game recaps are a little dry, I’ll admit that. 

My thoughts when I got credentialed were primarily that I wanted to capture the FAN experience and try to talk about that. I also have a few other really interesting “sidebar” stories that I want to tell because these are all interesting and fun things that happened at the game but not necessarily stories that you’d see talked about openly when recapping the tournament. 

I am hoping these unique stories are interesting to you because they were each very special experiences for me.

But First, Let’s Talk About the Arena

Before I get into some of these stories, I want to discuss the arena, it’s location and just the general aesthetic and overall experience of the league’s championship event.

I arrived on site for NKU WBB’s 2:30 Monday game. The arena was a little confusing to find, there weren’t clear markings or signs that I could notice, but to be fair I often miss things the first time when I am driving in an unfamiliar place. I wasn’t too thrown by this, I just chalk it up to Kyle being a dummy. That said, I would have loved to see the entrance marked a little better and maybe some signage around the area. 

I like the fact that the arena was away from downtown – I have no issues with the fact that it was “uptown”. The only thing that kind of sucked about the location was the fact that it’s located right on the fairgrounds. I knew that going in, but I was unprepared for how bad the cow crap would smell the second I walked out of my car. It was pretty bad from the parking lot, but as I approached the arena and passed the stables, it got worse. Luckily, I only parked in fan parking once, as I used the media entrance for every other game after the NKU WBB team lost.

Once I walked into the arena, it was solid. I was told that it was a dump – not true whatsoever. The arena was certainly underwhelming in terms of its size, but no offense, until our fans can collectively prove that we deserve better, we should only get a 6,000 seat arena. The arena is smaller than BB&T and the Nutter Center, but it still holds 6,000 fans – far more than either NKU or Wright State average per home game. Wright State held the 1-seed in this tournament, NKU held the 2 seed. This was the IDEAL situation for a huge turnout Monday night. There were under 2,000 fans total. Once Wright State was eliminated, the writing was on the wall for another underwhelming turnout in the championship game. UIC’s fans traveled okay but NKU brought a ton of their fans to the game – bringing the total attendance to just under 1,900. It’s fair to think that if Wright State had won Monday night then the crowd could have surpassed 3,000 fans – maybe up to 4,000. Don’t get too excited though. I got to thinking about this, and I realized that the only way we’ll ever see a huge turnout is if certain teams make the final 4 each year. In order to see fan turnout where the league and other diehard fans would like to see it, you’ll need to have NKU, Wright State, Oakland, Green Bay, or Youngstown State in the final 4. I am not convinced that Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland State or IUPUI will turn out their fans, and UIC has already failed that test. Purdue-Fort Wayne remains to be seen.

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One thing they did an awesome job with was the experience. The halftime shows weren’t fantastic, in fact, they were kind of weird, BUT the timeout promotions were awesome. They called on the pep-band, cheer and dance teams to come out on the court at least 3 times per team, per game and I thought that was great. Additionally, they had some really fun and interactive contests for the teams.

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Win with Humility, Lose with Grace

As the Wright State/UIC game ended on Monday and both NKU and Green Bay began warming up, I made my way down to court level to walk around behind the courtside seats. I was chatting with a photographer and the NKU women’s team after they came out, when I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was Bill Wampler. This was my 3rd interaction with Bill and it would end up being the most memorable one – by a long shot.

The first time Bill reached out to me, it was in response to a tweet I wrote. Around this time last year, I ranked what I believed to be the “Top 10 Most Talented Players in the Horizon League”. I had Bill in those rankings, and rather than call out his talent or abilities, I actually used it to call out his open fight with depression and how impressed I was with what he has made of his career. He ended up seeing that tweet and reached out to me through DMs, thanking me for it. I thought that was incredibly impressive. 

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The second time I spoke with Bill was within minutes of Wright State beating NKU on our home court and clinching the Regular Season title. I stuck around to congratulate Bill on the impressive win – even though it hurt like HELL to do it. I stood and waited to grab his attention and when I finally did, I was direct and to the point. I congratulated him, thanked him for a good season, and yet again mentioned how impressed I was with him. He asked me if I was going to Indianapolis and I told him I was and we shook hands and wished each other luck.

This time was totally different. There I was, just standing and talking to someone when I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was Bill. He had just lost a game in the Horizon League Tournament by almost 20 points. They were the favorite for the tournament. They were by far the best team in the conference. All expectations were on them to win the league tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament. He had every right to be pissed – and I’m sure he was. But he still chose to stop by, tap me on the shoulder, thank me for coming out, and chat a little afterwards. We spoke about the season, the highs and lows, and I just encouraged them both (Cole Gentry was next to him). I just thought it was a very cool thing to happen. No, this isn’t some groundbreaking story, but it was a pretty special moment for me, and I wanted to share.

Excuse Me, You Have a WHAT? You Named It WHAT?

Some time into the Wright State game, I got a response to one of my tweets asking me about an inflatable cow in the UIC student section. I was so confused. An inflatable WHAT?! Why? After glaring throughout the student section for an extended period of time, I finally saw it: an inflatable cow wearing a UIC basketball jersey. Mind you, this was my very first game on Press Row for the tournament so I had to sit and think on this for a minute. ‘What should I do?’ After a minute of stewing, the answer was obvious: I had to go over there to talk to that fan. And I am glad I did.

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I met a pretty cool 5th year Graphic Design Major named Ashanti. Ashanti (as she pointed out, “spelled like the singer”) told me that the cow was an idea that came about at the beginning of the year. Apparently this cow has come to every single game, wearing the jersey and has become the unofficial mascot for the student section. I asked Ashanti about the backstory, and it is incredible.

So back in 1871, there was a Great Fire in Chicago. In fact, this fire was so big and so devastating that it literally is known as “The Chicago Fire”. This fire reportedly burned down two-thirds of the entire city and it was incredibly devastating. Through my conversation with Ashanti, I learned that UIC actually gets their nickname (The “Flames”) from this fire. But okay… that still doesn’t explain the cow. Why a cow? Well, the fire was actually started by a cow in a farm that kicked over a lantern. The lantern landed on the ground, sparked a flame, and the rest is history.

This happened at O’Leary Farm. The inflatable cow had a nametag. His name was O’Leary.

What a connection.

Schools of Rock

Another awesome experience was seeing the school’s and their pep bands. They all brought it so hard and I was super appreciative of that. It felt like a legitimate college experience – and much of that was due to those bands. I actually was so inspired by how great they were that I decided to run a poll on Twitter for the battle of the bands.

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Taking in All the Sights and Sounds

Sitting on press row was amazing. I sat behind the Wright State/NKU bench on Day 1 and the NKU bench on Day 2. Being so close to the action allowed me to see some things I never would have been able to see. Here are some examples.

During the Green Bay game, I noticed both Tyler Sharpe and Bryson Langdon had moments that made Head Coach Darrin Horn IRATE and for two separate reasons. For Langdon, he hesitated to shoot a WIDE open 3-pointer, then shot it, and missed it. Horn yanked him out of the game, gave him a stern talking to, and put him right back in about 40 seconds later. A similar thing happened for Sharpe. Tyler missed a 3-pointer BADLY and it was arguably a bad shot (although I’d argue that no shot is a bad shot for Tyler). Horn turned to the bench, looking at his assistants, and bellowed, “Get him the f**k out!!” The coaches pulled Sharpe for less than a minute and he was put right back into the game. Both substitutions were “teachable moments” but both players were necessary so they couldn’t take too long to be taught. I thought that was so funny.

A couple other examples can be explained pretty simply be these tweets.

https://twitter.com/KyleCraven_NR/status/1237517554597253121
https://twitter.com/KyleCraven_NR/status/1237805382174674947

None of these stories would have been covered had I not been credentialed. My goal is always to report on fun and non-traditional storylines and I am super grateful to have been given the opportunity. 

So What Should Change & What Should Stay the Same?

Look, I’m not here to bash on anything that the Horizon League did or didn’t do. I mean, heck I’d say on a 10-point scale I would rate the experience a solid 7, maybe 7.5. I think the location was fun, the arena was acceptable and the foundation was laid out for a truly enjoyable experience. All of that said – things could have been better. Here’s how.

It’s Decision Time: National TV or Fun In-Person Experience?

Look, it’s pretty obvious that this league cannot have both. The Horizon League tried this season to have the best of both worlds: the experience of a neutral site conference championship and a nationally televised semifinal and final. It almost worked. You got the neutral site, and you got the T.V. priority, but it did come at a huge sacrifice. The in person attendance was awful. Downright embarrassing actually. With less than 2,000 fans per night, the crowd never reached 33% capacity, and probably was closer to 30% on the second night. Why was that? It’s pretty simple, the games were on a MONDAY AND TUESDAY NIGHT. NKU and Wright State were the 1 and 2 seeds and aside from IUPUI, they are the two schools that are closest to Indianapolis. They also are the top 2 programs in the league for home attendance. 

So that’s it. What you had at this tournament, that’s your dream scenario. And you couldn’t get to 33% capacity. That tells me that if you want to keep neutral sites, you HAVE TO DO WEEKEND GAMES. Yes, you might lose the priority of national T.V. but you will almost assuredly draw huge crowds, especially if the teams with the most engaged fan bases are in the final 4.

Understandably, the Horizon League might want to prioritize national television. I get that. I ain’t mad at it. If that’s what you want to do, then fine, keep the Monday semifinal, change the final to Wednesday, and bring back home sites for high seeds. That will help your top seed make the tournament each year, and the crowds for those games will be off the chart. 

I don’t care which of the two they pick. I’d personally prefer the first option because I love the neutral site and traveling, but you just cannot do it on weeknights and expect it to be any fun for fans. Both options are better than what they are doing. I truly hope that they consider making the change.

CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK!

Once again, I’d like to thank the HoriZone RoundTable for sending me to the tournament AND the Horizon League for being so welcoming of myself and HZRT. I cannot wait to go back next year, whether NKU makes it or not! See you all there!

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