The Norse seek to return to the NCAA Tournament with a balance of veterans and new faces
Northern Kentucky University (22-13 last season) – the reigning Horizon League Tournament champions – spent much of their 2022-23 season in “A Tale of Two Cities” mode, swaying back and forth between the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It took the Norse some time to dial in their true identity, but when they peaked, they peaked at just the right time.
On one hand, last season’s squad fell flat in three straight losses to fellow mid-major programs in the Florida Gulf Coast Classic, losing each game by an average of 13 points in a tournament they were expected to win. With a chance to prove they could hang with teams from stronger conferences, they suffered lopsided non-conference losses on the road to Washington State and Florida Atlantic. They then went on to finish fourth (via tiebreakers) in the Horizon League to close out the regular season.
On the other hand this same team dominated cross-town titan University of Cincinnati, 64-51, who themselves finished 23-13 in a tough AAC Conference before advancing to the Third Round of the NIT Championship. The Norse went on a late season tear to win four of their last five games before grinding out three consecutive wins to claim the conference tournament championship and another NCAA Tournament bid. With that bid, the Norse stepped into the limelight of the big dance and proceeded to give #1 Houston a run for its money until the last media timeout, before bowing out of the First Round. The 16-seeded Norse were on the tips of many college hoops analysts’ tongues for several days after the respectable loss.
Head coach Darrin Horn’s 2022-23 squad brought home some conference hardware and a NCAA Tournament participant banner, with the core of that squad – minus guard Trevon Faulkner, post Chris Brandon and point guard Xavier Rhodes – mostly intact, with the addition of multiple key incoming transfers and highly heralded freshmen. Two of those graduating seniors are now playing pro basketball in Europe – Brandon in Finland and Rhodes in Slovakia.
“I feel like the way we played in the NCAA Tournament last year, we’ve got some guys returning that feel likes there’s work to be done there,” Horn said. “What I’m encouraged by is we have three guys coming back that could have gone anywhere in the country in today’s college basketball climate – a lot of places – and they chose to stay (at NKU) and I think a big part of that is because they want to play with each other and they feel like there’s more work to be done here with each other at Northern Kentucky.”
Horn enters his fifth year leading the Norse, and in his four seasons in Highland Heights has led NKU to an 80-41 record overall that includes a mark of 51-23 in Horizon League play. A Kentucky native himself, Horn has also had coaching stints at Western Kentucky and South Carolina. Pacing the sidelines with Horn are key assistant coaches Eric Haut, David Harris and Simon McCormack. The Field of 68 media network has picked Horn’s Norse squad to win the Horizon League title and is rated as the #11 mid-major team in the country.
G Marquis Warrick, Sr., 6-2, 185 – Of the core players returning, “Ques” likely brings the most name recognition around the country. The preseason All-League First Team senior guard has had quite the career in Highland Heights, scoring 1,589 points while averaging 17.3 points per game over those three seasons. Warrick continues to become more dangerous from the floor every year, increasing his scoring output each campaign (15.8 – 16.8 – 18.8 ppg). Having other dangerous playmakers around him has also allowed him to share the ball more effectively, as evidenced by his progressively better assist-per-game line (1.8 – 2.3 – 2.6 apg). Field of 68 has Warrick rated as the nation’s No. 12 mid-major player in their annual publication, The Almanac.
In his words… “We all have a common goal which is to win a championship every year, and I’ll put the team goals ahead of my individual goals for sure…it feels better to win at the end of the day. We haven’t won a regular season title yet, so that’s definitely one of the main goals.”
G Sam Vinson, Jr., 6-5, 205 – The preseason All-League Second Team junior guard and hometown favorite (Ft. Thomas, KY) will look to continue building upon his former status as a Freshman All-American at NKU. Vinson has started every game for the Norse since he stepped foot on campus as a freshman, providing the squad a defensive maven with length, athleticism and unlimited shooting range who can both run the point and shoot the lights out any given night. Vinson has proven to be a credible threat on both ends of the court for the Norse, averaging 11.8 ppg and 4.3 rebounds per game, while notching 76 steals on the season as one of the nation’s stingiest defenders. Vinson will be relied on heavily to take pressure off Warrick, but he has the ability to cause defensive mismatches on his own.
Wing Trey Robinson, Sr., 6-6, 220 – Robinson returns to the Norse squad as a likely starter after transitioning into the starting five last season. The Hamilton, Ohio native brings imposing size and length to the guard position after recording 7.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists per contest last season. What may make Robinson a huge matchup problem for opponents this season is his increase (and success) in shooting the ball from behind the arc. Last season, Robinson attempted twice as many treys as he did his junior year and hit 34% from deep after hitting 28% of them a year earlier. Robinson is also known to be a tenacious defender out on the perimeter and is a big reason why NKU had the league’s top rated defense last season.
PG Michael Bradley, Gr., 6-0, 185 – The graduate point guard from San Antonio, Texas brought in via the transfer portal may well end up being Horn’s greatest catch after the Norse lost PG Xavier Rhodes to graduation. Bradley is projected to slide right in to the starting point guard position for the Norse after four seasons at NCAA Division II Mercyhurst University. Bradley brings with him four full years of starting experience as well as a wide pallet of talents. On the surface Bradley shows up as a classical point guard, but he can also score in bunches when called upon. Last season was Bradley’s best for the Lakers, attaining career highs in points per game (14.9 points), assists per game (4.2) and rebounds per game (3.8). Most importantly, he brings veteran savvy (88-22 career record) after leading Mercyhurst to a 25-6 record and a spot in the 2023 NCAA Division II Tournament. If Bradley can register 30+ minutes per game running the point, that should leave Sam Vinson open more often as a scoring threat.
F Cade Meyer, Jr., 6-8, 220 – The Wisconsin native and former Green Bay Phoenix post joined the Norse through the transfer portal in the offseason, giving the Norse a big body that can score effectively inside while also defending the paint at a high level. The junior post brings with him two years of eligibility after a breakout season at Green Bay in which he averaged 10.5 ppg and 5 rebounds per game to go along with 20 blocked shots. His 20 swats would have been third on the NKU roster behind only Chris Brandon and the departed Immanuel Zorgvol. If Meyer can produce at both ends of the court for the Norse – especially now that he is surrounded by more talent – he will surely stand as a mainstay in the lineup the next two seasons in Highland Heights.
LJ Wells – The 6-8 sophomore forward showed signs of brilliance last season, then disappeared for long stretches throughout the schedule. Wells played only 152 minutes, but what cannot be overlooked is his production against Toledo last season in which he entered the game as a sub and went on to play 32 minutes, scoring 20 points while adding 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 steals. It was perhaps one of the most complete individual games of any Norse player all season. If Horn gets that LJ Wells consistently this season, he will have found a much needed depth piece and possible spot starter.
Keeyan Itejere – It’s really difficult to not put a physical talent of Itejere’s magnitude in the projected starting five, knowing full well that prior to Marquette, he was ranked as a three-star prospect and the 23rd center prospect overall by Rivals. But, until the sophomore transfer from Marquette shows promise as a complete player, he may start the season as a type of super-sub to give Meyer a rest. Make no mistake though, if his on-ball skills match his otherworldly athleticism, it will be hard to keep him on the bench. The 6-9 high flyer played very sparingly at Marquette, but he will surely get plenty of minutes early on against nonconference foes to prove that he is both an exceptional athlete and basketball player.
Hubertas Pivorius – The Lithuanian-born guard who landed in Highland Heights by way of Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Fla., has two years of experience playing for the Norse, and has proven to be a long range weapon when called upon. The 6-2 guard played in 30 games last season, and also has extensive experience playing basketball at the international level for the Lithuanian U18-U19 national teams.
Horn has a propensity for getting the most out of the players he has at his disposal, and all things being equal – when balancing out players they lost and gained via the transfer portal – this Norse squad looks to be appreciably better and deeper than it was this time last season. The Norse will be playing a relatively uninspired home nonconference schedule that is highlighted by a visiting MAC school (Akron), as well as matchups against a Division III team (Depauw), a Southland Conference foe (Texas A&M – Corpus Christi), a Long Island University team that won three games last season and the NAIA’s University of the Cumberlands. While these are all great opportunities for players to write “W” next to each of these games on the schedule, historically games against low-major and sub-Division I teams do not tend to draw robust crowds.
The road non-conference slate should provide some enticing viewing opportunities for fans, and is highlighted by a trip across the river to play Cincinnati, who will surely be looking to settle the score after they fell hard to the Norse last season. The Norse will also make the long trek to Seattle to take on PAC-12’s Washington. The Norse took a beating against Washington State last season, so some West coast redemption may be on their minds. The UW Huskies finished 16-16 last season, but the PAC-12 had five 20-win teams and two teams ranked in the final top 10. In other words, it’s a tough conference packed full of tough teams.
In order for the 2023-24 Norse to be successful this season:
– They need to prove that there is life after Chris Brandon. For the past two seasons, Brandon filled a role that only he seemingly could fill. With “CB” gone, the Norse are going to need a rim protector and backboard banger that can both alter shots and haul down rebounds by the dozen while also being athletic enough to run the court with the guards.
– They need to come into the season dialed in and with roles clearly defined. Horn has a blend of proven returning core players, impressive incoming transfers and athletic freshmen to juggle. He can only play five guys at a time, so expectations for everyone need to be addressed and tempered early on.
– 100% buy-in. Horn runs a system that is heavily team-focused and defense-oriented. It’s gritty, it’s aggressive and it’s not always “pretty” to watch…but it’s proven highly effective. Players who play for Horn need to know early on that they are going to be expected to play at 100% effort for 40 minutes every night. There are no exceptions to this rule, Horn’s teams are well known for gritty hustle and sticky in-your-face defense.
The Horizon League as a whole got dramatically better in the offseason, primarily through the influx of incoming transfers with solid resumes under their belts. The Norse are no exception, they look to be stronger, faster and more dynamic than last season. Coach Horn has his hands full, balancing all of his returnees, incoming transfers, holdover redshirts and freshmen. But, if his squad shows chemistry early on and the whole team is on the same page, the Norse are going to be very difficult to dethrone.
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