Northern Kentucky:  Horizon League’s new dynasty in the making?

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Photo by Matt Dudek

If you are reading this article right now, odds are you already know that Northern Kentucky University (22-12, HL 16-6) won the Barbasol Horizon League Tournament Championship in Indianapolis earlier this week (Read Bob McDonald’s recap) in a 63-61 slugfest over Cleveland State University (21-13, HL 14-6). 

On the surface, to the casual observer this win may not seem to carry any more significance than any other college basketball conference tournament final.  The score was numerically modest, you might even miss it while scrolling through ESPN’s web site… the two teams involved have both established themselves as fairly reputable mid-major programs, but neither consistently found themselves in the Mid-Major Top 25… and the event was held in central Indiana…on a weeknight. 

The Horizon League (HL) has generally been best known for housing mid-major basketball power Butler University, who fled the HL in 2012 to join the more prolific Atlantic 10 Conference.  A mere year later, Butler jumped from the A-10 to the even more prolific confines of the Big East for even more exposure.  Since Butler left the HL, the conference has at times struggled to find a new stable rack to hang its proverbial hat on.

Enter Northern Kentucky University.  If you wish, you can start getting comfortable calling it “Mid-Major Titletown.”  Snicker if you wish, but the Norse men’s basketball team has now won three of the past five HL tournament titles, and were only one cubic inch away – one last second 3-pointer that clanged off the back of the rim last year – from laying claim to four of the past five.  As the old saying goes, “But what have you done for me lately?”  Well, all the Northern Kentucky men’s team has been doing (lately) is winning a majority of the HL’s trophies for the past half-decade. 

Trophies won in the 1980s are now considered archeological relics.  Titles won in the 1990s don’t matter anymore, most of the young men playing today weren’t even born until after 2000.  Titles won in the early 2000s are irrelevant in the context of today’s microwave culture.  What is happening lately? The Norse filling up their trophy case, that’s what.     

While the campus rests on the rolling hills of Highland Heights, the general area is geographically linked to the Greater Cincinnati Metropolitan Area.  But don’t tell Norse fans that – they may bleed NKU black and gold, but they still live in The Bluegrass State.  Northern Kentucky is still fairly new to the region, it was founded in 1968 and is the state’s newest public university.  But winning is not something new to NKU.  Now building a dynastic program at the Division I level, this is new territory. 

At the Division II level just 11 years ago, the Norse were long considered the golden child of the Great Lakes Valley Conference (GLVC).  Conference titles and long runs into the NCAA D-II Tournament were the base expectation, and visits to the national championship game were not foreign to the Norse.  That said, please forgive the Norse faithful if they seem to be getting too cozy too quickly with success in the HL.

So how did the Norse, a No. 4 seed in this year’s conference tournament, find themselves sporting the HL championship banner, hats, shirts and all the other requisite things that go with the newest championship trophy?  All it really took was winning seven of their last eight games, winning their last five straight, and winning three straight conference tournament games at a neutral site…after going 0-3 at neutral sites during the regular season.  That’s really it. 

The challenge of winning a tournament title becomes less daunting when you keep your opponent from scoring.  The Norse’s three opponents in the tournament averaged just 66 points per game, well below all of those three teams’ season averages.  If NKU coach Darrin Horn has proven anything to naysayers this season, it is that defense truly does win championships.  The Norse have been ranked top 30 in the nation all season in defense, employing a sticky “match-up zone” that makes good use of their aggressive and athletic defenders.  When these athletes are communicating on the floor, staying true to their assignments and not giving opposing ball-handlers room to breathe, it’s a beautiful sight to behold.

Photo by Matt Dudek

While the Norse tend to put teams away with their team defense, they also have individual players who had massive performances during the 3-game gauntlet.  Winning certainly has an impact on All-Tournament Team selections.  The Norse placed three players on the All-Tourney Team:  Tourney MVP guard Marques Warrick, guard Sam Vinson and forward Chris Brandon.  Through the three hard-fought games, Warrick led the team with 20.7 points and 2.7 rebounds per game.  Vinson (15 ppg, 5 rpg) and wing Trey Robinson (10 ppg, 3.7 rpg) rounded out the three double-digit scorers, while clutch performances from Brandon (9.0 ppg, 13 rpg), guard Xavier Rhodes (8.7 ppg, 4.0 assists per game) and guard Trevon Faulkner (7.7 ppg, 1.7 rpg) all played heavily into the team’s championship success.        

The Norse took some hard hits during the regular season, some physical and psychological lumps that took time to heal.  They travelled to Florida for an early season tournament against fellow mid-major programs, only to lose all three games – and they lost them badly.  They went on the road to play the Pac-12’s Washington State with high expectations and hunting for another Power 5 win, after defeating the University of Cincinnati convincingly earlier in the season.  The Cougars creamed the Norse in every aspect of the game, handing the visitors a 68-47 loss.  Then there was the 15-point loss to Florida Atlantic University, a 67-52 shellacking that left the Norse with a 7-6 record before sending them into a long Horizon League schedule. 

It would have been easy enough to close up shop and go through the motions the rest of the season, just accept that this just isn’t the year.  Accept that there may just not be enough firepower to fight with.  Not enough experience in the ranks, maybe too many late additions and unknown commodities to the roster.  Perhaps too many young players attempting to take on the playing time left over from players who transferred out or graduated.  It would have been so easy.  So why didn’t they just pack it in when the team seemed to be fraying at all the edges?  The answer is easy: Pride.

These coaches and trainers have jobs to keep and fans to please…these players have athletic resumes to build on and playing tape to accumulate.  NKU has never had a player reach the NBA, but it has had some players signed to NBA camps and many, many players enjoying impressive careers playing basketball professionally overseas.  With that in mind, you can surely bet these players are working hard to get “looks” by scouts from local and international leagues, because team success and exposure lends itself well to individual success and exposure (and vice versa). 

A massive chunk of Horn’s keys to success is getting his players to not just buy into his tactics and style of play, but to also trust the process and follow it all the way through.  During an interview with radio 700WLW’s Lance McAlister Wednesday night, Horn admitted that the Norse will most likely draw a very low seed that will place them against one of the best teams in the country in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament.  When asked what he will have to do different to give a top-ranked opponent a real run for their money, he said that at this point the Norse are what they are, and they will focus on doing what they have done so well to get to this point:  Sticky, suffocating defense.  Force steals, create turnovers and convert those to points.  Aggressive offense, getting to the foul line early.

Horn stated that the Norse are playing their best basketball of the season right now, so there is hope that what they are doing so well right now will be disruptive to their next opponent. The Norse will now anxiously await Selection Sunday when they will receive the news of their seeding, where they play and who their First Round opponent will be.  Until then, you can expect they will be ironing and hanging their newest championship banner, polishing the newest title trophy and staying in game shape for their upcoming Cinderella story.  Dynasties don’t build themselves…good coaches, good players and good preparation do.  And this Norse team has all three of those ready and waiting.

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