HL tourney champs have March 16 date with Cougars
The Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball team has waited since last March for this moment. For the Norse, this season began last season…it started the moment senior guard Bryson Langdon’s last-second three-point attempt clanged off the rim in the Horizon League Tournament Championship game, a miss that allowed bitter rival Wright State University to lay claim to college basketball’s crown jewel…a coveted NCAA Tournament bid.
This missed opportunity reverberated all the way down the line, from NKU Head Coach Darrin Horn, to his coaching staff, the trainers, the medical staff and the incoming, current and outgoing players themselves. As it relates to the NCAA National Tournament, the Horizon League is a “one bid league,” only the conference tournament champion snags the singular golden ticket, so the margin of error is razor thin. You’re either in or you’re out…there’s no in-between.
How NKU got there
The Norse finished the 2022-23 regular season 19-12 overall and 14-6 in the Horizon League, which was good for a fourth place finish in the conference and a #4 seed in the Horizon League Tournament. Despite finishing four rungs down the conference ladder, the Norse managed to bull their way through the conference tourney, winning three consecutive games over #5 seed Oakland, top-seeded Youngstown State and #3 seed Cleveland State on their way to the Horizon League hardware.
One-bid leagues like the HL can be a cruel mistress at times. The success algorithm of this unforgiving grind is quite simple – use the regular season schedule to fine-tune your operation for the end-of-season tournament title run, so that your team is peaking at just the right moment. This season, the Norse worked this strategy through to perfection, winning their last five games and seven of their last eight – proving to all that they are in fact playing their best basketball of the season when it matters most.
Experts were divided a bit on where NKU would land in the brackets, but the Norse ultimately were awarded the #16 seed in the Midwest Region where they will be playing University of Houston, the #1 overall seed and team most heavily favored to win the national title..
Norse at a glance:
- Head Coach Darrin Horn – Since 2019
- NET Rating 154
- Better NET Rating than “Power 5” schools Boston College, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, UMass, SMU, Florida State, Georgetown, Louisville among many others
- Scoring Offense Rank #263 (68.2)
- Scoring Defense Rank #27 (63.6)
- National Top 50 scorer (#42) All-Horizon League junior guard Marques Warrick (19.1 ppg) – Warrick also is a Finalist for the 2022-23 Lou Henson National Player of the Year award, announced by CollegeInsider.com
- Fifth-year senior post Chris Brandon ranks 16th in the country in rebounds per game (9.8) this season, after setting the single season record at NKU for rebounds with 333 boards
- As a team, NKU ranks Top 50 in the country in steals
- Theft – NKU has eclipsed its opponents in steals, 320-196
- NKU (+144) and UH (+142) have nearly identical positive turnover margins
- All-Horizon League sophomore and reigning Freshman All-American guard Sam Vinson ranks 14th in the country with 73 steals
- Starting Lineup (projected): G Marques Warrick (Jr.) 19.1 ppg, 3-pt 39%. G Sam Vinson (So.) 11.7 ppg, 73 steals, 90 assists. G Xavier Rhodes (5-Sr.) 7.7 ppg, 3-pt 40%, 121 assists, 65 steals. G Trey Robinson (Jr.) 6.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg. PF Chris Brandon (5-Sr.) 6.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 24 blocks
How Houston got there
Houston hails out of the American Athletic Conference (AAC), a conference that historically carries quite a bit more weight than the Horizon League as it relates to college hoops. The AAC boasts quite a few programs that are consistently strong year in and year out such as Houston, University of Cincinnati, Temple, Tulane and Memphis among others.
In this 11-team conference, there’s a very good chance seven of these programs will be playing in one post-season tournament or another. That’s a testament to the quality and depth of the teams in their talent pool that compete against each other, while also navigating more challenging non-conference schedules. “Iron sharpens iron,” so to speak.
Houston, currently ranked No. 1 in the country by the Associated Press, won the AAC regular season title and stands at 31-3 on the season. Despite losing the AAC Tournament Championship Game to Memphis on March 12, Houston still holds the No. 1 NET Rating in D1 college hoops and will be representing the AAC as the top seed.
Cougars at a glance:
- Head Coach Kelvin Sampson – Since 2014
- NET Rating 1
- Scoring Offense Rank #77 (76.0)
- Scoring Defense Rank #2 (56.5)
- Rebounding prowess – Houston outrebounds opponents by a +7.5 margin
- Total blocks – Houston 149, Opponents 79 (nearly 2:1 ratio)
- Steals – Houston has outpaced its opponents in steals, 262-166 (nearly +100 margin)
- NKU (+144) and UH (+142) have nearly identical positive turnover margins
- 3% Defense: Houston allows opponents to shoot only 28% from behind the arc
- Depth – The Cougars have 10 players that play 11+ minutes per game
- Of their three losses, two of the three are to unranked opponents (Temple, Memphis) and the other was to SEC’s #8-ranked Alabama
- Roster Pedigree – Houston’s starting five boasts one 5-star recruit, two 4-star recruits and two 3-star recruits. All of them are former All-State players and four of the five are from the state of Texas
- Starting Lineup (projected): G Marcus Sasser (Sr.) 17.1 ppg, 103 assists. PF Jarace Walker (Fr.) 11.1 ppg, 29 blocks. F J’Wan Roberts (Jr.) 10.5 ppg, 39 blocks. G Tramon Mark (Soph.) 10.0 ppg, G Jamal Shead (Jr.) 9.9 ppg, 56 steals
At a glance, this game would seem to tilt heavily in Houston’s favor. They score more, they give up less, they have more size and athleticism and utilize players who were once ranked #10 (Walker – also top ranked power forward) and #67 (Mark) in the country coming out of high school. Their leading scorer (All-ACC Sasser) has been starting for the better part of his four-year college career.
They are built deeper, play more players regularly and hold their opponents to nearly 10 points less per game than NKU…and against far superior competition through the balance of their schedule. Before their recent loss to Memphis they had won 13 straight games, so they have been cruising through the second half of their schedule.
But, as cliché as it is to say (and it is), none of these numbers, stats or metrics have never found a way to measure heart, determination or chemistry. Realistically, only one #16 seed has ever defeated a #1 seed in the history of this tournament, so the likelihood of NKU pulling an upset Thursday night – statistically speaking – is far less than 1%. Thankfully, metrics and guts are two different animals and this Norse squad has a lot of guts. If NKU’s token match-up zone defense throws Houston out of rhythm just long enough to be effective, and the ball bounces the right way a few more times than not, and March Madness decides to live up to its moniker…who knows?
Don’t count NKU all the way out, they have nothing to lose and Houston has the pressure of the world on their shoulders to win. This will be a fun game to watch, and it shouldn’t be a shock if Houston is still only up by 10 points or less late in the game. If the Norse are still in this game late, do not turn the TV off.
Game Details – Round 1:
NKU (22-12) vs. Houston (30-3)
Thursday, March 16 – 9:15pm EST
Legacy Arena – Birmingham, Ala. (Tickets available)
- Capacity: 19,000. Home of the NBA G-League Birmingham Squadron
- The NCAA Tournament has not held games in Birmingham since 2008