Northern Kentucky has a 3-game stretch to set tone for upcoming play

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Heading into the 2022-23 season, Northern Kentucky was widely favored to win the Horizon League title after finishing 20-12 and securing third place in the HL regular season standings.  Despite not winning the regular season title, the Norse were one possession away from having their March Madness ticket punched, before succumbing to Wright State in the HL championship game, 72-71.  In that game, the Norse went into halftime up by seven and were leading the Raiders by 16 with 11:41 left before seeing that lead agonizingly escape their grasp. 

The frustrating loss in the Horizon League Tournament Final notwithstanding, the Norse capped a remarkable five year stretch in which they won at least 20 games (minus the COVID-shortened season) and finished in the top three of the conference each season.  Securing wins in eight of their last nine games certainly could have been perceived as an encouraging step heading into the offseason. 

The offseason – for most D-I programs – was highlighted by the nonstop movement of players jumping from one program to another for new opportunities, minus the previous rule that forced players to sit out a year before being eligible to play for their new team.  During this tumultuous period, NKU lost four eligible D-I players – three of which fled via the Portal – but gained no equivalent D-I players in return.  Coach Darrin Horn did lure senior point guard Xavier Rhodes from D-II Florida Southern College to replace the departed Bryson Langdon, but otherwise chose to instead stock the suddenly light cupboard with walk-ons and late-committing high school seniors.  While the Norse replenished the roster with lots of youth and potential for the future, it does seemingly leave the bench depth a bit shallow.  How this strategy will affect the direction of this season as well as into the future remains to be seen.           

Fast forward to the present…10 games into the season and with heavy conference play looming in the coming weeks, NKU finds its record split cleanly down the middle at 5-5 (2-0 HL / NET 278) and currently sit in a three-way tie for first place in the conference.  The Norse share the top spot with 2021-22 conference regular season champion Cleveland State and upstart Milwaukee.  Whether the Norse are where they envisioned they’d be one-third of the way through their schedule may be up for debate.  The first third of the season has been a roller coaster ride marred by a winless early mid-major tournament, but also punctuated with an historic win over its cross-river rival Cincinnati.  Sprinkle in additional wins against a local junior college (UC-Clermont), an ailing Tennessee Tech team (NET 312), two wins against fellow HL foes Robert Morris and Youngstown State and a soul-crushing road loss to Washington State (NET 68) and you’ve got a “broke-even” start.    

What the Norse have coming up in the schedule prior to their Christmas break is an interesting trio of games featuring home matchups against in-state rival Eastern Kentucky University (Dec. 14) and local University of Miami-Hamilton (Dec. 18) capped off with a road trip to Boca Baton, Fla. (Dec. 21) to tangle with an extraordinarily tough Florida Atlantic University team to close out the pre-Christmas break. 

The tilt against the Colonels – winners of three of their last four games – keeps the Bluegrass battle alive and brings to Highland Heights an Eastern Kentucky team (NET 262) that also sits at 5-5 on the season.  This year’s EKU squad has eclipsed the 120-point mark in three games already and averages 85.6 points per game, good for 10th in the nation and tops in the Atlantic Sun.  But, much of their gaudy output can be attributed to the fact that in two of those three aforementioned games, the opponent was a junior college (137-52 vs. Miami-Middletown – not a typo, folks) and a small NAIA school (122-84 vs. Brescia).  One thing the Colonels due especially well is share the ball around.  So far this season, 13 players have logged substantial minutes and 10 players average at least 10 minutes per game.  They push the pace and substitute early and often to rotate in fresh legs, so this should be a fast-paced game.

The scheduled home matchup against University of Miami-Hamilton sticks out on this schedule because it features a second game this season against a local junior college – not exactly a season ticket holder’s dream. Miami-Hamilton’s campus is just 50 minutes up the road from NKU in Butler County, Ohio. The Harriers play a very unique schedule comprised of NCAA, NAIA and fellow JUCO opponents – they are currently 4-4 and play in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association’s D-II, which is reserved for the smaller JUCOs in the region. This game may not be a nailbiter for the fans on hand, but it does provide the Norse an assured win where minutes can be spread out gratuitously to the newer players on the roster.  It also potentially gives the coaching staff a perfect opportunity to tinker with various combinations of players on the floor, while allowing the team to get some extra work in on things that may be hard to work on against conference opponents – things like running the floor, attacking the rim more directly, posting up and working the ball down low and full and half-court pressure packages.

The road trip to Florida to take on the Owls (8-1) will provide NKU with quite possibly its stiffest test of the season as Conference USA’s FAU (NET 11) has quietly become one of the nation’s toughest teams to beat at home, as evidenced by their 49-14 (.778) home record over the past five years.  Last season’s FAU squad played in the postseason in the CBI Tournament, bowing out to Northern Colorado in the First Round.  Like EKU, the Owls also distribute the ball well.  They do not have a single player averaging more than 27 minutes per game, they sport seven players that average at least 8 points per game and Head Coach Dusty May (previously a top assistant at University of Florida) has started eight different players this season.  Just gleaning over their team stats, this is a team that will put up 80+ points per game, throw lots of players at you quickly and pass the ball on the attack as they have twice as many assists as their opponents this season.

What Horn and his staff have these next three games is a chance to test the team’s depth a bit more at home against two very beatable opponents, followed by a game down south that will see how well the team performs on the road against a very good FAU team after their ugly road loss in Washington earlier this month.  With the Horizon League seemingly up for grabs this season with multiple teams looking like possible contenders, these three contests give the Norse a chance to iron things out before charging full force into full-time conference play.

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