A Tale of Two Identities

by: Kyle Craven of Norse Report

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” — Charles Dickens, 1859

Charles Dickens opens his seminal novel, A Tale of Two Cities with that monologue. His intention is, by way of anaphora, to emphasize the vast contrast between the two cities of London and Paris leading up to the French Revolution. It’s a truly profound piece, one that has stood the test of time and remained relevant for nearly 200 years. It reinforces the idea that there is no prosperity without struggle, no peace without war, no justice without injustice.

In the case of NKU Basketball this season, I believe that they certainly are in for A Tale of Two Identities.”

From Enticing Exposition to First Conflict

NKU began the season just about as well as any Norse fan could have hoped. They collected another 1-point win against a solid Ball State team (#139 KENPOM) and a win against a not-so-impressive Tennessee Tech team to start the season. After a tough 7-point loss to Chattanooga, where their lack of size was really on display, the Norse found themselves facing the same enemy that all 357 teams had in common in 2020: COVID-19.

BREAKING: NKU not Immune to Postponements, COVID-19

Following a few positive tests from Butler and a few positive results on the NKU side, both the Butler and Campbellsville/Harrodsberg games were either postponed or cancelled. This definitely derailed the season slightly, but it’s one of those things that you had to take with a grain of salt this season. Everyone is dealing with it the best that they can, and you just have to learn to be malleable to your circumstances. The Norse would come back and finish out the non-conference schedule with two very tough games, a 6 point loss to a Dayton team that is #63 in the Ken Pomeroy ratings, and a 19 point drumming at the hands of #146 Kent State. Just like that, the Norse were 2-3 and …. Heading into conference play against Youngstown State? Like I said, it has been a weird year. It felt like Norse fans – and completely impartial professionals like myself – knew nothing more than what we knew coming into the season. The Norse are one of the most undersized teams in the NCAA, but they have ways to overcome it. If they play their zone defense correctly, aggressively defend the perimeter, force bad passes, speed up the opposition, get turnovers, convert transition opportunities into made baskets, force bad shots and rebound as a team, move the ball on offense, shoot good (open) shots and make an acceptable percentage of those shots they can win any game on any given night. But fail to do any one of those things well, on any given night, and they would turn their “spring of hope” into a “winter of despair” very, very quickly.

“…but fail to do any one of those things well, on any given night, and they would turn their “spring of hope” into a “winter of despair” very, very quickly.”

Nobody is Ready, but Alas “Winter is Coming”

Again, with just 5 games under their belt NKU would open up conference play against a team picked by many “experts” and expert fans (who arguably know more than the “experts” do) to finish second in conference. The Youngstown State Penguins traveled to Highland Heights to take on the Norse in BB&T Arena, a building in which they’ve never won a basketball game. The first game would produce, yet again, a “Tale of Two Identities” for the Norse. It was the prodigious freshman, it was the persistent senior. Both Marques Warrick and Adam Eleeda lit up the Youngstown State Penguins for 18 points, leading all Norse in scoring on that night en route to a 15 point win. 

Warrick Shines, Makes Play for FOTW Honors (Again)

One bright spot for the Norse all season has been the play of their entire freshman class, but this night belonged to Marques Warrick. Ques, who is averaging 11 points and 3 rebounds per game as the starting “2 guard” more often than not for the Norse has also been impressive in his shooting efficiency. He’s shooting 44% from the field and 33% from 3 this season, which is especially impressive considering how much more difficult it is to adjust your feel from high school to college (quicker, longer defenders make shooting midrange/inside more difficult, the 3-point line is approx 2 and a half feet further back) and it doesn’t seem that Warrick is really feeling susceptible to those types of changes. He’s also 11th in the conference in Offensive win-shares, highlighting just how helpful he’s been in the Norse lineup.

Photo by: The Northerner

The Night Also Belongs to Adham El33da

No, that is not a typo! When Adham Eleeda makes 3s – which is literally his role on the team – we reward him with the nickname El33da (El-Three-Duh). This is precisely what the senior wing was able to do on Saturday night. El33da sank six threes on 7 attempts to provide the Norse a healthy 18 points in 21 minutes off the bench.

After a very tough 2019-20 campaign, the Norse were going to have to rely on Eleeda to give them something in 2020-21. Losing Dantez Walton and Silas Adheke only exacerbates the importance of Adham Eleeda’s shooting. At 6-foot-6, Eleeda gives the Norse length on defense. He can play the bottom part of the zone (baseline/corner/low wing area) and not give up much size. For his own part, he is an adequate rebounder and a pretty good defender. But offensively if Eleeda is not El33da on that day, he hurts the team. If the Norse can get Eleeda shooting above 35% from 3 this year (God willing), he’s going to be a very important piece on the year. He’s currently shooting 45% this season from 3.

“If the Norse can get Eleeda shooting above 35% from 3 this year (God willing), he’s going to be a very important piece on the year. He’s currently shooting 45% this season from 3.”

“We Had Everything Before Us, We Had Nothing Before Us”

Again, nothing explains what is likely to be a very volatile, up and down season for the Norse quite like the near 200-year old words of Charles Dickens. Norse fans went to bed on Saturday night (or in my case, went on to bug the heck out of Bob on the live show) dreaming dreams of conference championships, and NCAA tournament berths. “We just beat the consensus #2 team in the conference [pre-season] by 15 – bring on Wright State!” However, like all good things in 2020 – the worst was coming shortly thereafter. About 24 hours later, the Norse would suffer a 10 point defeat to the same Youngstown State team that they had just beaten themselves by double digits.

Too Damn Big

Led by 19 points and 7 rebounds from 6-foot-6 forward Naz Bohannon and 14 points and 12 rebounds from 6-foot-7 F Michael Akchuie (including a combined 7 offensive rebounds) the Norse were simply outmatched inside. Despite being able to find ways to mitigate Youngtown’s pretty strong size advantage just 24 hours earlier, the Norse found themselves consistently out of position in their zone. This led to easier shots, clearer rebounding lanes, slow rotations and ensuing shooting fouls – all things that would prove to be detrimental to the Norse efforts of a sweep.

Photo by: The Vindicator

Free Throw Frenzy

The difference in Sunday’s game between the two teams is really hard to find. NKU made the same amount of field goals as the Penguins, and had only 1 more miss. They made one less 3 and shot 2 more total. Both teams underwhelmed in assist numbers – YSU had 8 while NKU posted 11 – while both getting more turnovers than assists – 10 for Youngstown and 12 for the Norse. It’s not easy to find the difference, but where I really noticed it – and the numbers support as much – was Youngstown State’s ability to draw fouls resulting in attempted free throw shots. The foul totals of the game yesterday was 14 to 17 in favor of the Penguins, but the free throw totals were greater. While the Penguins went 17-22 from the FT line, the Norse managed to only shoot 9, making 8 of those.

Now What?

What does it all mean? What is this team? Well, we still don’t really know. It could very well be that this is what we get all season. When you run a team out there with over half of the players being completely new to the program, you can expect some level of inconsistency. As someone who covers this team but also prides myself on being a fan as well, I do tend to value the first result rather than the second. We proved on Saturday that we can beat the best, and do it convincingly. We know that as a fact now. The second game can be chalked up as true exploitation of some of our weaknesses – many of which cannot be fixed – but I believe the biggest one (inexperience) can and will be fixed. The Norse will grow. They will falter. But ultimately, when it’s all said and done, I truly believe the positives will outweigh the negatives.

Then again, at the end of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the main character Sydney Carton faces the guillotine where he is ultimately beheaded. Let’s hope the parallels between this Norse team and Dickens’ finest work end sooner than later. 

Up next for the Norse:

  • Saturday, 12/26 @ OAKLAND – 7 pm
  • Sunday, 12/27 @ OAKLAND – 3 pm

You can follow Norse Report on Twitter: @NorseReport

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