Returning strength is key to the Norse’s success
Of the 11 Horizon League men’s hoops programs to analyze for the 2022-23 season, this year’s iteration of the Northern Kentucky University squad may be the most challenging to break down. The program lost multiple key players following last season, but have since brought in five true freshmen and a Division II transfer to fill out this season’s roster.
Last season the Norse (20-12, HL 14-6) finished 3rd in the Horizon League during the regular season before dropping the conference Championship game in heartbreaking fashion, 72-71, to bitter rival Wright State University. Despite its 20-win campaign, NKU’s season ended when Bryson Langdon’s three-point attempt from the wing clanged off the rim at the final buzzer. This loss marked the second consecutive season head coach Darrin Horn’s team failed to win its conference tournament, and the university was not selected for a lower tier postseason tournament.
On the surface, the Norse welcome back a squad that returns two recent Horizon League Freshman of the Year winners, nearly 73% of its minutes, 78% of its scoring and 70% of its rebounding production. The story those numbers don’t tell is that the Norse lost two starting-quality players that have both proven to be huge influences on the success of the program the past several years.
Perhaps the program’s most glaring loss was its top rebounder and a fan favorite in 6’8” power forward Adrian Nelson – the Horizon League’s 5th-leading rebounder – to fellow conference foe Youngstown State via the transfer portal. Nelson took with him his 114 games played and 731 rebounds over his 4-year NKU career.
Also departing from the Norse after the season was starting point guard Bryson Langdon (2021-22: 6.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 126 assists), who had one year of eligibility left at NKU but graduated and chose to leave school to pursue a professional basketball career. The 5’9” guard finished his NKU career at #14 on the school’s all-time assist chart.
The Norse also lost a Division I transfer in Seybian Sims, who previously was a starter on his former team at University of North Dakota. Sims looked to be a long wing that brought length, depth and D-I experience to Highland Heights, but ultimately only appeared in 13 games and played a grand total of 91 minutes on the season.
Lastly, the Norse lost international wing David Bohm to D-I Eastern Washington University via the transfer portal. The Czech Republic native had been receiving considerable playing time with the Czech Republic U-20 National Team and appeared to be advancing his game prior to the 2021-22 season in which he only played in 12 games.
So with a few key players departing after last season, the Norse roster has undergone enough turnover to bring into question how the squad is shaping up for the 2022-23 campaign. It would be a huge challenge to project what the Norse starting five may look like without knowing where the incoming freshmen and D-II transfer fit in, so I will simply focus on five players that I feel may be keys to NKU’s success this season.
Trevon Faulkner, Guard – 6-4, 200 lbs. – Fifth Year Senior
The fifth-year senior from Harrodsburg, Ky. chose to return to the program for one more year by taking advantage of the “Covid Year” the NCAA granted its athletes. Faulkner has been a 4-year starter for the Norse, and will look to improve upon a “down” 2021-22 season in which his scoring output dropped from 16.7 ppg to 11.8 ppg; his minutes played per game dropped from 33.7 to 29.7 and his field goal percentage dropped from 41% to 39.1%. The fifth-year player did see a formidable jump in his three-point shooting, where his accuracy jumped from 27.5% to 37.3%. In addition to improving on his scoring output, Faulkner also has the talent and experience to run the point while aiming to impose his leadership on a young Norse squad that lost its starting point guard.
Chris Brandon, Power Forward – 6-8, 220 lbs. – Senior
As a transfer from Horizon League foe Detroit last season, Brandon served as half of the “Twin Towers” duo comprised of him and fellow forward Adrian Nelson. Brandon and Nelson were rebound mavens for the 20-12 Norse, and they essentially split minutes 50/50 at the power forward position. Despite only playing half of each game, the Houston native still managed to finish 6th in the Horizon League in rebounding (7.4 rpg) last season while leading the conference in offensive rebounds per game (3.12). With Nelson’s transfer to YSU after last season, Brandon – and his senior leadership – will be counted on to play more minutes, crash the boards for more rebounds and perhaps more importantly mentor the young, promising post players on the roster in second-year player 7-footer Imanuel Zorgvol and true freshman Cesar Tchilombo.
Marques “Ques” Warrick, Guard – 6-2, 185 lbs. – Junior
The former Horizon League “Freshman of the Year” continued to rack up accolades during his sophomore season after a highly successful freshman year for the Norse. The 2021-22 campaign found Warrick on the All-Horizon League Second Team, Horizon League All-Tournament Team and two-time Horizon League Player of the Week during a season in which he started 30 of 32 games and saw his scoring output increase from 15.8 to 16.8 ppg. Even more noticeable than his awards and scoring increase last season was his improved ability to distribute the ball and play stingy defense, as he saw his assists total jump from 46 to 72, and his steals from 20 to 37. With Langdon now gone, Ques may be counted on to run the point at times, and his sophomore season proved that he has the ability to do that if need be.
Sam Vinson, Guard – 6-5, 205 lbs. – Sophomore
NKU’s most recent Freshman of the Year was good enough to also be named to the Kyle Macy Freshman All-American Team and was a finalist for the top freshman in college basketball. The Ft. Thomas, Ky. native also earned seven Horizon League Freshman of the Week honors on his way to becoming a member of the Horizon League’s All-Freshman Team. Vinson started all 32 games for the Norse, setting a new Horizon League freshman record with 66 steals, while ranking 12th nationally in total steals (66) and 31st in steals per game (2.1) on the season. While Vinson has the size and length of a wing, he has the athleticism and on-court IQ to play point guard when the need arises, making the young player from local Highlands High School a key player for 2022-23.
Trey Robinson, Wing – 6-6, 220 lbs. – Junior
This selection may have some readers squinting at the screen a bit, but Robinson is a player on the rise who, depending on how he responded to offseason training, may see his time and role expand this season based on his improvement on the court last season. The Hamilton, Ohio native saw his playing time increase two minutes per game last season (15.5/17.6), was only one of seven players who played in 31 games or more and saw substantial increases in his several statistical categories, including rebounds (from 56 to 99), blocks (from 6 to 13) and steals (from 14 to 42).
Despite playing just under 18 minutes a game, Robinson was second on the team in steals and third on the team in blocks. His athleticism, length and innate defensive skills make him a potentially dangerous player on the court for the Norse. Now that the Norse will be playing without Nelson’s defensive presence around the basket and Brandon holding down that role, Robinson may be a player whose length and instinct challenges shooters at the perimeter and makes a stellar Norse defense (1st in Horizon League last season, giving up only 65 points per game) even better.
Xavier Rhodes – 6-1, 170 lbs. – Fifth-year Senior
Most of the Horizon League programs intensely scoured the Transfer Portal looking for seasoned D-I players to plug n’ play into their roster to replace the vast amount of outgoing transfers. NKU chose a more traditional path, directing its energy on the proverbial long game by bringing in high school seniors who were under-recruited because of the popularity of the Portal. The one exception for the Norse was college senior Missouri native Xavier Rhodes, the former Northwest Missouri State University and Florida Southern College point guard who transferred to NKU to finish out his career in Highland Heights.
With the loss of point guard Bryson Langdon, the Norse were left with no “traditional” point guard on the roster. While Faulkner, Warrick and Vinson have the ability to run the point position, they could be best served in roles where they are set up to score instead of focusing on distributing the ball to others. Rhodes brings with him a championship pedigree and a history of winning while running the point, as he won a national championship his freshman season at NMSU his freshman season and went on to finish his four years of D-II play with a 90-21 record overall. Rhodes was widely thought to be one of the best D-II point guards in the nation looking to transfer, as this move fits an immediate need for the Norse. With Rhodes, the Norse picked up a player who could conceivably step in and run the point so that their proven scorers can focus on what they do best…getting to the basket and scoring. Word around campus is that Rhodes has worked hard enough in the offseason to be in the conversation for a meaningful role on the court this season. If that is the case, despite its offseason transfers and loss of Langdon, the Norse will have improved their chances of a return to the Horizon League championship game substantially.
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