Battle of the Bigs highlights first-place clash


CB versus AD matchup incoming

If you’re expecting a traditional, formal hoops matchup preview within the confines of this article, I’ve got good news and bad news for you.  The good news is, you’re going to get both my personal and professional rundown of the upcoming Northern Kentucky at Youngstown State tilt on the books for tonight.  The bad news is, well – the bad news is the same as the good news.

I’ve had the pleasure of personally covering NKU basketball through a majority of Adrian (“AD”) Nelson’s college career.  I can also say the same thing about Chris (“CB”) Brandon.  So when I say you’re going to get an overload of my personal analysis in the upcoming battle between these two players, it’s primarily because I have favored both of them for years.  They are two of my all-time favorite players with NKU ties, and despite Nelson shipping his skills to YSU via the transfer portal, he remains one of my favorite college hoops players to this day.

In February 2020, I wrote an article featuring AD for the now defunct Norse Report titled “Does Adrian Nelson Remind Anybody Else of Dennis Rodman?” (which was also republished here)  I even went as far as to give him the nickname “ADemolition Man,” as an homage to the nickname Rodman gave himself – The Demolition Man. Soon after Rodman was traded from the Detroit Pistons to the San Antonio Spurs, he proclaimed himself The Demolition Man, living out the promise he made to himself when leaving Detroit. Rodman did what he wanted, and after he reportedly saw actor Wesley Snipes in the film “Demolition Man,” he began to dye his hair like Snipes’ character…and his brand of demolition was not limited to hair styles, he played like a destructive force on the court at all times. 

Chiseled frame, high motor, purposeful aggression, physically disallowing others access to anything he wanted…in this case, the basketball.  What I saw in AD at the time (and to this day) was all those attributes wrapped into one college player. AD was a bit raw back then, but you could see the beast within.  At the time of that article, while he was absolutely a threat on the court, he wasn’t a high volume scoring threat – just like Rodman. 

The article was a smash hit among readers, drawing thousands of views seemingly overnight.  It was shared to various other publications and I was getting emails and texts from other publications asking if I would come write for them, just because of that article.  I hung my hat on that piece for a long time, it was the piece by which people knew me back then.  Part of that was because – primarily – it was a darn good article. But secondarily, it drew raves because once the data and comparisons were laid out for all to see, readers came to the conclusion that AD was, in fact, a Rodman clone emerging before their eyes.

Here’s where things get interesting.  If you go back and read that article, you could substitute Chris Brandon’s name into that article in place of Nelson and you end up with very similar conclusions.  CB and AD are built almost identically – they both appear as though they were sculpted from marble. They both stand at 6’8” and weigh in the 220-225 pound range.  They both have impressive collections of tattoos that might remind you of Rodman.  They both pride themselves on their ability to own the paint on the court, using their muscled frames in identical ways to win the position battle down low and seemingly always know which direction the ball is going to carom off the rim.  They both are consistently All-Academic selections.  But when it comes to hoops, if basketball was a business the paint would be their office and the backboard their desk.

So let’s get to the meat of tonight’s Horizon League matchup, shall we?  What we are going to see tonight is one of the nation’s best offenses looking to set the scoreboard afire against one of the nation’s stingier, more stubborn defenses.  Both AD and CB are going to feature and factor into tonight’s game in a huge way, because they both make life difficult for opposing teams…more on that shortly.

The offense-hungry Penguins – led by sixth-year head coach Jerrod Calhoun – features the nation’s #6 offense, lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 84 points per game.  Teams they are leaving in the dust statistically include national powers such as Arizona, UConn and Baylor among many others.  One caveat to running an aggressive offense is the propensity to also give up more points than desired, which they do at an average of 73.4 points per game – but their wide scoring margin of +10.6 is surely indicative of their recent success. 

The hallmark of NKU basketball under the tenure of fourth-year head coach Darrin Horn is high-effort, suffocating defense.  Their defenders are voracious and their scheme effective and opportunistic. Multiple players rank in the top 25 in various defensive categories.  The Norse currently rank 28th nationally in team defense, surrendering a meager 63 points per game.  However, equally meager is Horn’s scoring offense, which only produces 67.6 points per game.  Horn’s slow, deliberate offensive style seems to work best when it lulls opponents to sleep just enough to pull out wins, as evidenced by its modest +4.6 scoring margin.  That said though, national powers looking up to NKU in terms of defensive ranking include perennial winners such as Duke, Seton Hall and Xavier.  

It’s time we talk about where AD and CB are, where they’ve been and how they may factor into tonight’s battle.  The eerily-similar forwards have taken similar paths in their development as college basketball players.  CB – now a fifth-year senior – transferred to NKU from Detroit Mercy after playing three full seasons for the fellow Horizon League Titans.  AD – now holding graduate student status at YSU – transferred to the Penguins after a full four-year career at NKU.  Both players are currently playing their fifth full season as a result of the extra “COVID year” athletes were granted in order to make up for their shortened 2020 season. 

What many may find interesting is these two played for NKU at the same time, on the same roster, before AD was required to move on to continue his career.  Last season, both players played for NKU and essentially split time for the Norse. And when I say split time I mean they literally, to the minute, split time on the court for the Norse.  Last season, AD played in 30 games, starting 12 of them while averaging 20.4 points per game.  CB played 32 games while starting 20 of them in his 20.2 minutes per game.

When you are only playing half a game, it is difficult to build up imposing statistics.  Having two players of superior ability and quality, but giving them both part-time minutes many fans in the stands.  Horn’s guard-heavy scheme makes it very difficult to give two excellent “bigs” of similar position and ability substantial playing time and chances to shine.  NKU often runs four guards and one forward/center at opponents, which means in order to stay competitive your guards must hit their outside shots, because having just one player near the basket on offense makes it difficult to dominate the second-chance points column.  And when your team is routinely throwing up 22-28 three-point shots per game and only hitting 33% of them, points in general can be hard to come by…which is why their sticky defense is the key to every single game – as Horn always says, defense is the team’s identity.   

Last season AD shot 58.4% from the field for the Norse, averaging 6.9 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game, took only two 3-pointers (missing both) and shot 60.9% from the free throw line. His “other half” – CB – shot 63.2% from the field, averaging 5.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg and shot 66% from the charity stripe.  Between the two of them, playing 40 minutes between them per game, they gave the forward position very solid per-game production when their numbers were blended together. 

This season, after leaving NKU for YSU, AD has played in all 24 games thus far and has started every one of them and is averaging 31.7 minutes per game.  He is now shooting 49% from the field for 12.7 ppg, averages 9.4 rpg and is shooting 75% from the line.  Oh and by the way, he has taken the liberty of putting up 53 shots from behind the arc and is hitting on 34% of those – not bad at all for a player who was restricted to only shots in the paint prior to wearing Penguin red and black. 

To say the move to YSU has allowed AD to dramatically expand his game and develop as a more complete player is an understatement at the very least.  He was actually recruited out of Ohio’s Pickerington Central High School as a dynamic, high-flying shooting forward who would run the floor and effectively shoot from anywhere on the court.  If anything, he was restrained at NKU and deprived of doing what he was recruited to do. He became imprisoned by the limitations forced upon him by the coaching staff and his growth as an athlete and basketball player was effectively stalled as a result. 

With the move to Youngstown State, Calhoun has given AD the go-ahead to shoot the long ball when it’s there, to not be afraid to pull up and take the 15-foot jumper if his shot path feels clear…and now his confidence is soaring.  He is bringing the ball up the court, leading fast breaks, shooting threes, throwing down thunderous dunks, wiping the glass for rebounds, shooting better than ever from the free throw line, and still shooting nearly 50% from the field despite being given free range to shoot whenever he is “feeling it.”  The addition of AD to this YSU roster, along with fellow grad student and portal transfer forward Malek Green from Canisius, has made the Penguins infinitely more athletic and a very difficult team to match up with.

Conversely, the move of AD to YSU has given CB more court time and more room to develop more fully as a premier big man at NKU.  With AD gone, CB has been able to eat more minutes per game.  He is now averaging just shy of 30 minutes per game, which is nearly a 10 minute per-game bump from last season. 

While AD and Malek Green both play the same position and are very similar players, they both start for YSU.  In CB’s case, he has a developing big man behind him in Redshirt Freshman Imanuel Zorgvol, a 7-footer from the South American nation of Suriname, who is averaging 10 minutes per game.  So in the offense Horn runs, he doesn’t really need both CB and Zorgvol on the court at the same time, which allows CB to rest a bit but still get substantial playing time.

This season for the Norse, CB is shooting 63% from the field, 60% from the free throw line, averaging 6.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg and is among the nation’s leaders in total rebounding and offensive rebounding.  While scoring in bunches has never been a huge part of CB’s game at the college level, his scoring has moved a bit north from previous seasons.  Last season he averaged 5.1 ppg in his 20.2 minutes per game, so the added time on the court has resulted in more scoring output. 

Basketball is literally and figuratively in CB’s blood.  He is the nephew of former NBA player and head coach John Lucas and cousins to former NBA player John Lucas and former Texas standout Jai Lucas.  He is consistently an All-Academic honoree.  He’s smart in the classroom and on the court.  And just like Rodman, CB lives on his reputation as a baseline bully, an athlete with the strength, smarts and agility to read the ball’s path before anyone else and end an opponent’s possession after one shot attempt.                      

So, how does this all relate to tonight’s game?  Honestly, I have no idea.  I want to offer a sage prediction slathered with all sorts of complex, well-reasoned analysis.  The Penguins have not lost at home much under Calhoun, but they should come into tonight’s game drained from their triple-overtime win over Wright State two nights ago.  But when the referee lobs the ball in the air and it hits the hardwood, all that will matter is matchups and who will win those matchups. 

Watching AD and CB go head-to-head all night should look like two stout bucks charging each other head-on and locking horns, a powerful display of two near-equal brutes seeking ultimate dominance.  If recent history is a measuring stick though, AD (16 points, 8 rebounds) dominated the statistics over CB (2 points, 8 rebounds, fouled out) last time out, but the Norse emerged as victors at home in a thrilling 77-73 overtime victory on December 1st.

That said, beyond the big AD vs. CB matchup, there are some bigger elements to consider.  Can NKU’s high-energy defense slow down the offensive efforts of a surging Youngstown State squad that has won eight of their last nine?  Can the Penguins keep the Norse from controlling the pace and dictating the speed of the game in NKU’s favor?  Last time these two conference-leaders met, Warrick exploded for 30 points and four NKU guards accounted for 72 of the team’s 77 points. 

If the Norse guards come in hot and Chris Brandon is ruling the paint, the Penguins may be in for another long night.  Bottom line, both teams need to win tonight in order to stay in contention for the Horizon League regular season crown.  Who comes out on top?  If forced to choose, I would gladly admit my NKU bias and say NKU steals the win from YSU, 70-66.  First place is on the line, these games are special.  Here’s to hoping these games remain special for years to come.

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