For the first time in program history, Northern Kentucky will square off this Wednesday night (12/07 – 9:00pm EST) with the PAC-12’s Washington State for a non-conference clash. The Norse, who will reportedly be paid $80,000 by WSU to make the 2,135 mile journey from Highland Heights to Pullman, WA, take on a talented Cougar team that finished 22-15 last season and advanced to the semi-finals of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) before getting escorted out by eventual champion Xavier.
This season’s Washington State team, currently sitting at 3-4 and ranked No. 76 in the most recent NET Rating (formerly RPI), will be trying to defend their home court, while simultaneously ending a two-game skid after dropping consecutive decisions to PAC-12 foes Oregon and Utah. The host Cougars represent the highest ranked team NKU will have played this season thus far, and are surely looking to get back on track before Pac-12 play resumes in late December. The visiting Norse squad (5-4, 2-0 / NET 260) is on a three-game win streak of its own after winning close games over Tennessee Tech and a pair of double-overtime thrillers over Horizon League rivals Youngstown State and Robert Morris at home.
The Norse may have their work cut out for them in Washington. The Cougars are led by third-year coach Kyle Smith who took over the program in March 2019, a team that finished 11-21 that season and appeared to be headed in the wrong direction quickly. In his three seasons since taking over the reins of the program, his teams have made steady progress while finishing 16-16, 14-13 and 22-15, respectively. This season’s team features four double-digit scorers, three of which average 14+ points per game:
- 6-5 junior guard T.J. Bamba from The Bronx (15.4ppg, 47% from behind the arc)
- Returning PAC-12 All-Freshman selection in 6-11 Senegalese Sophomore forward Mouhamed Gueye (14.3ppg, 7.3 rebounds per game, 53.3% FG%), who was the nation’s No. 34 recruit in his class according to 247Sports.com
- 6-6 Junior guard Jabe Mullins (14.2ppg, shoots 57% from behind the arc) who transferred from St. Mary’s and was the #21 recruit in the state of Washington’s 2020 recruit class
Handling the ball and leading the red and white offense is 6-6 Junior guard Justin Powell, who averages 11.6ppg and sports an impressive assists-to-turnover margin of +24 (31-to-7). Powell is a transfer from Tennessee where he originally signed after being named the nation’s No. 76 recruit in 2019-20 by ESPN. As a Vol last season, he became the ninth player in Tennessee history to hit at least five three-pointers (5-for-5) without a miss, en route to notching a season-high 15 points against Presbyterian.
The Norse should be carrying an air of confidence into the West Coast trip after dispatching three foes over seven days at home, following a disastrous showing at the Florida Gulf Coast Showcase in which they returned home from the tourney winless in their three games.
While coach Darrin Horn’s squad isn’t setting the nets on fire on the offensive end this season, they have been employing an aggressive, stingy “matchup zone” defense that has held opponents to 67.7 points per contest while snagging 79 steals. That number of steals, while already impressive, would be even higher if sophomore guard Sam Vinson didn’t suffer an ankle injury early in the season and require time off. Now that the reigning conference Freshman of the Year has returned to the Norse starting lineup, he will have an opportunity to make his mark against the Cougars on both ends of the court. The Horizon League’s top two leaders in Steals wear NKU jerseys in Junior guard Marques Warrick and Senior point guard Xavier Rhodes.
Offensively, the Norse have plenty of weapons at their disposal in both their first/second year players and their upperclassmen. They have quite a few players on the roster who fit the profile of long, athletic and aggressive ball hawks who could run with the ball in transition, give the defense fits and effectively force fouls if given the opportunity to attack the rim. Warrick has been as hot as a campfire ember this season, averaging 21.6ppg and eclipsing the 20 point mark in four of NKU’s nine games. Through nine games, Warrick still remains in the top 10 nationally in scoring average. Senior guard Trevon Faulkner has brought some valuable veteran minutes from the bench, and freshman LJ Wells has proven that when he plays, he produces.
Senior forward Chris Brandon’s 11.7 rebounds per game still resides in the nation’s upper echelon of low-blocks efficiency, and his size and aggression will be necessary to help offset the size in WSU’s lineup across the board. While the Cougars like to sling three-pointers early and often, they also have the size and length to follow up those shots for easy put-backs if the Norse don’t own the paint.
If the Norse are to return home with a nice win over a Power 5 opponent, Coach Horn and his staff may have to dig deep into the roster and get as much as they can out of every player available. The Cougars may have a losing record now, but they play extremely well at home and have lots of highly touted former recruits and players with lots of big-game experience on their roster. If the Norse can overcome the rigors of the long flight to Washington, make adjustments early if and when needed and take care of the ball, this could be a very entertaining game to watch.