Norse fans, the sky is not falling

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The NKU Norse followed-up a two-game sweep of Purdue Fort Wayne with a two-game dud against Cleveland State.

Well, Norse fans, how about that for a come-down? Riding fairly high after a 2-0 weekend against Purdue Fort Wayne (and a 3-1 overall start in the Horizon League) some were beginning to sip that NKU-flavored Kool-aid.

Well, don’t say we didn’t warn you! NKU swaggered into the Wolstein Center on Friday night, with their 3-1 record in their pockets and the chests puffed out. Cleveland State, entering the night 6-0 in conference play and with something to prove, gave them a nice little punch in the jaw en route to a 2-0 sweep.

Now, to Northern Kentucky’s credit – they took that first punch, a 14 point loss on Friday where it never even felt that close, and came back for more on Saturday night, fighting with CSU all night and even holding the lead for a good portion of the second half, before ultimately suffering a 3-point overtime defeat

Graphic by: NKU Norse
Graphic by: NKU Norse

I know, you’re a Norse fan. You’re accustomed to winning. You sure as hell aren’t used to getting swept on the weekend. It might feel like the sky is falling, but it’s not. Like literally – it’s not. Here’s why:

A good distraction

Before we dive into the real reasons that I still feel okay about this team, let’s just take a moment here to talk about how fortunate we are to have basketball right now, specifically NKU basketball. The world is insane.

We’re experiencing a more polarized country than we’ve ever been in right now – with flat out insanity happening on a daily basis. Heck, one reason it took so long for me to even get Norse Report going again was because I could not stand to be on Facebook or Twitter for more than 2 minutes during the waning months of 2020.

But isn’t that the reason that we need this? Isn’t that the reason we need Northern Kentucky basketball? This season, as crazy as it has been, from rebuilding to “day of” cancellations due to COVID-19 protocols, it has still provided the perfect escape from what is an otherwise insane world, designed to drive us crazy. (Seems like a good time to plug the Norse Report newsletter, yeah?).

But, aside from that necessary and welcome distraction, you still want a good product, right? And let’s be fair, it’s debatable if NKU has been that for us this year. I mean, let’s be real, Norse fans are used to 20 win seasons. We’re used to top 4 (honestly, top 2) Horizon League finishes, HL Tournament Championships – all of it. And it seems unlike that we we accomplish any of that this year, just based of what we’ve seen so far. But you guys… it’s really not all bad.

Who’s watching anyway?

I’ll be honest. It feels unfair to be calling anyone out here but I guess you could say I kind of am? I mean, I’m not mad at anyone this year for not watching games like I would be at this point any other season. For all of the reasons above with the current political climate, it makes sense. Add on the fact that there’s a pandemic and economic crisis.

Finally, due to the pandemic, everything is online now. Digital content is focused on pulling eyes to their content so quickly these days that it’s no wonder people still have them in their sockets. Northern Kentucky hoops now has to compete, on the same playing field, as everything else.

The biggest draw that NKU had, the ace up their sleeve, was the environment that the Athletic Department, team and fans have collectively been able to create over the course of the past 5 or 6 seasons – and we have none of that now. Fan engagement is way down; just go look at Northern Kentucky’ social media engagement. I wish there was more that could be done, but honestly – what could you do?

So, if there was ever a year to struggle a little bit, to try new things, to play guys (like freshman walk-on Jacob Evans, who has seen quality minutes the past 2 weekends), then now is the year when the eye balls are being drawn elsewhere. It also makes sense to try new things when you have a young team, which brings me to our next point.

This team is younger than you think

I know a lot of people will look at this team, see a few familiar faces and think “Oh, okay – we have some guys on the team that can step up and lead, we’re good.” Not so fast. This team has one senior (Adam Eleeda). This team has SIX freshmen. In fact, diving deeper – NKU’s youth isn’t even done justice when you look at their roster and each player’s “class” (grade).

Looking deeper, this team is even younger than it looks at the surface. See, 3 of Northern Kentucky’s upperclassmen are JUCO transfers. This means that while Adam Eleeda (senior), Darius Harding (junior) and Bryson Langdon (junior) are all upperclassmen with good college basketball experience, even they have limited D1 experience. We’ll illustrate this in the table below:

PlayerPositionClass*D1 Experience**
Adham EleedaG4.01.0
Trevon FaulknerG3.02.0
Bryson LangdonG3.01.0
Darius HardingG3.00.0
Paul Djoko (RS)G3.02.0
Carlos Hines (RS)G3.02.0
Marques WarrickG1.00.0
Trey RobinsonG1.00.0
Jacob Evans (Walk-on)G1.00.0
Adrian NelsonF3.02.0
John Harge (RS)F1.00.0
David BohmF3.00.0
Noah Huppman (Walk-on)C1.00.0
David Wassler (Walk-on)***C(3.0)(3.0)
TOTALSG: 9, F: 3, C: 22.07,  (2.28).57, (.78)
* = Actual year listed on the roster. 4 = SR, 3=JR, 2=SO, 1=FR
**= Years of basketball at the Division 1 Level. 4 = SR, 3=JR, 2=SO, 1=FR
***= David Wassler is fundamentally a walk-on player. He only plays in blowout wins. Noah Huppman and Jacob Evans have found themselves involved in the game plan this season.

So what does all of this mean? Well, for starters, while our team looks like, at the surface, we have a little more experience than people are saying – we really don’t. The average class/grade of this team is 2.07, which basically means that they are, on average, a first semester Junior – barely.

But in reality, when you factor in only their years of experience at the Division I level, they score out at a .57, basically a second-semester freshman! Now ask yourself, would you ever expect a team with all Freshmen to win a championship in a season? Or would you give them some space to develop, and take all the good things that come your way?

I have always said coming into this season, that this season isn’t about hanging banners. This season is about cementing a culture, a legacy. This was the true test. Can this team be good year in and year out, even with a new coaching staff? Well, we found that out Saturday. But what about when the last of the greatest generation of players the program has ever seen graduates? We’re finding out the answer to that now.

And if you’re truly a Norse fan, not just some fairweather casual, you have to be happy with what you’re seeing overall. This is a team that fights and can win big games right now. And in a few years, when the current Freshman class are Juniors, they’ll be ready to take their place back at the top of the league, a staple. Just you watch.

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