NKU starts off 2021 the right way: Two-game sweep

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[feature photo by: NKU ATHLETICS]

March 10th was one of the best days of my life. I was courtside, on press row for HoriZone Roundtable, witnessing (as objectively as possible) my alma mater and favorite sports team, hoist their third Horizon League Tournament trophy in four years – signifying a fourth banner that would be raised at BB&T Arena in as many years (NKU was the regular season Horizon League Champs in 2018). I was already making plans for Selection Sunday, possibly even making plans to travel to our tournament location. Life was good. What could go wrong?

What could go wrong – went wrong. Not even 24 hours later, American sports games began getting cancelled, mid-game. A day later, major Power 5 conference tournaments were cancelled. The NCAA Tournament was in question. By the weekend, Selection Sunday wasn’t a thing anymore. Instead of buying tournament tickets and making travel arrangements, I was buying masks and making “work from home” arrangements. COVID-19 had arrived, and it punched college basketball in the face.

Naturally, the comedown from such a high was sobering. I wasn’t just drinking the Norse kool-aid – hell, I was swimming in it. Then it got removed from my life, cold turkey. It was a feeling I never want to have again, and getting the fire lit back under me has taken quite some time, as I’m sure it has for many fans. But this past weekend may have changed things. With seemingly nobody returning to the 2020-21 roster from last year, this team has still found a way to light that fire in many Norse fans hearts, despite not being able to watch them in person.

photo by: NKU ATHLETICS

Are you new here?

I mentioned above that the Norse returned very few players this year, and I was not lying. In fact, only five players remain from last year’s team. Six, if you count Wassler the walk-on. Moreover, it was the players that the Norse were returning that was concerning to many fans, and league-wide pundits.

Of the five returning players, only two of them started over half of the games played. Trevon Faulkner started all 32 games and Bryson Langdon started 22 of 31 possible games (missed 1 game due to injury). Adrian Nelson (3) and Adham Eleeda (1) also combined for 4 starts, while Paul Djoko did not start in a game last season. All in all, the Norse were going to have to replace over 60% of their scoring, a tall task for a lot of newcomers.

Those newcomers who would be charged with that very difficult task would consist of 3 true freshmen (on scholarship), 1 medical redshirt freshman, 1 JUCO transfer (junior), 1 Division I transfer (junior), and 2 freshmen walk-ons. In total, the Norse were looking very likely to be relying heavily on anywhere from 4-6 of these players to come in and make an immediate impact.

photo by: NKU ATHLETICS

Headlining this “youth movement” for the Norse has been Marques Warrick. “Ques” has averaged 27.9 minutes per game this season, but perhaps most importantly, he’s been the most efficient offensive player on the team, with an offensive box plus/minus of 2.7. He has been an absolute superstar.

Despite suffering a minor setback on defense early in the season that cost him his starting spot for two games, Warrick has really hit his stride recently. The freshman had already won Horizon League Player of the Week two times in 2020 and was entering 2021 eyeing his third. The Norse would end up needing him to really show up too, considering they would be down two men (Eleeda/lower leg, Hines/COVID-19 protocol) heading into a weekend set against Purdue Fort Wayne.

Warrick awarded, but a full team effort takes the weekend

With Eleeda and Hines out, and David Bohm being called upon to start, that would leave an opening for a couple of guys to really step up. And if foul trouble or injuries occurred, the Norse may have to reach deeper into their bench than you normally would during conference play. Thankfully, no injuries occurred, but as fate would have it, Langdon would indeed get into foul trouble on Friday forcing Darrin Horn to reach into his bench for someone completely unexpected during crunch time.

Walk-on Jacob Evans was called upon during crunch-time of the Friday night game to help the Norse spell an all-important Langdon. Horn employed an “offense/defense” strategy, utilizing dead balls and timeouts to sub in Evans for defense, and swap Langdon back in when he could for offense. It was a brilliant strategy that was implemented to perfection.

The box score will show 0s across the board for Evans, but it was his great defense, specifically his on-ball defense at the top of the key one play (the same play that Darius Harding forced a turnover around the 3:40 mark in the 2nd half) that was quite inspiring. Couple that with enthusiastic/energetic performances from Harding and John Harge both nights, along with a positive outing from 7’0” walk-on center Noah Huppman and there is a lot to be happy about from this past weekend.

When all was said and done, behind two 22 point performances from Warrick, including a clutch 3 to ice the game in game 1 and a last second layup for the win in game 2, the Norse emerged victorious both nights. Warrick got his Freshman of the Week honors, and the Norse got their victories.

photo by: NKU ATHLETICS

Let’s look ahead [but not TOO Far]

Looking ahead to this weekend, the Norse will face off in a 2-game road series against Cleveland State. Led by Junior Guard D’Moi Hodge (14.9 PPG including 46 against PFW, 2.6 SPG), Junior Forward Deante Johnson (1.6 BPG), Senior Forward Al Eichelberger (2019-20 All Horizon 3rd Team) and of course second-year head coach and up-and-coming superstar Dennis Gates, the Vikings currently sit atop the Horizon League throne. It certainly will not be an easy out.

While the metrics show the Norse and Vikings very close to one another, one must take into account that Cleveland State has a 40-point loss to Ohio on their ledger as a major setback. In conference play, the 6-0 Vikings have managed to shoot 50.5% from the field (4th) while holding their opponents to just 41.1% (2nd). They are also holding Horizon League opponents to 65.8 points per game, which is good for 3rd in the conference. When you look at common opponents, they also have faced Purdue Fort Wayne twice this season.

Right before Christmas, the Vikings traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana where they defeated the Mastodons by 2 points and 9 points (+11 in two games). Against the same opponent this past weekend, the Norse claimed 7 and 2 point victories (+9 in two games). So your guess is as good as mine.

A bright future could be dawning sooner than we hoped

This upcoming series against Cleveland State will reveal a lot about this NKU team. Are we a work in progress? Can we actually be competitive this season? Are we a serious contender in this conference right now? While we won’t get the full answers to these questions this weekend, these games will serve as a huge litmus test for this team, these players.

My biggest question coming into the season was this: we know the new players are talented, but are they good enough to be very good DI players. We know the answer for Bohm, Robinson and Warrick pretty early – those guys are legit. This past weekend slate gave us, I believe, our answer for Harding and Harge. Both of these two are legitimate Division 1 players. The question is, can they bring it every night? If they do – and their teammates follow, we could be in for one heck of a pleasant surprise this season.

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