When the University of Kentucky begins its quest for a ninth NCAA championship Friday night in the NCAA Tournament, there will be an odd dynamic.
The team representing the commonwealth’s flagship university will have far less of a “made in Kentucky” pedigree than its opponent.
Northern Kentucky’s second-year head coach, Newport Catholic graduate John Brannen, is originally from the commonwealth.
Four of NKU’s top five scorers — Drew McDonald (Newport Catholic); Lavone Holland II (Ballard); Carson Williams (Owen County) and Mason Faulkner (Caverna) — are products of Kentucky high school basketball.
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For all the justifiable handwringing over the commonwealth’s inability to produce high-level basketball talent like it once did, Northern Kentucky (24-10) would not be in the NCAA Tournament in its first year of eligibility without a heavy recruiting emphasis on home-grown talent.
“We gained traction in recruiting probably quicker than anything in our program,” Brannen said Thursday at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “It had to do with a great (coaching) staff. ... Kentucky (high school talent) was great at the time we took over the job.”
While the level of talent being produced in Kentucky in the 21st Century is far from “great” — if you define it by players good enough to play for UK or Louisville — Samford Coach Scott Padgett told me in 2014 there is another way to look at it.
“There may not be a lot of talent in Kentucky for the level of UK or U of L,” said Padgett, the former Wildcats forward. “But (for mid-major basketball), I think there are a lot of good players.”
NKU’s presence as a No. 15 seed opposite South Region No. 2 UK (29-5) is testament to that.
Brannen, the former Morehead State and Marshall player and ex-Eastern Kentucky and Alabama assistant, inherited McDonald. The burly 6-foot-7, 250-pound sophomore leads the Norse in scoring (16.4 points a game) and rebounding (7.7).
The NKU coach and his staff signed point guard Holland (14.3 ppg, 4.1 assists), who played at Ballard with Quentin Snider and Kelan Martin, out of a junior college.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Brannen said of Holland, the Horizon League Tournament MVP. “At the point guard spot, he’s dynamic in what he can do with the basketball.”
In the 2016 recruiting class, Brannen inked two Kentucky first-team All-Staters. Subsequent to signing with Northern, Owen County forward Carson Williams was chosen last season’s Kentucky Mr. Basketball.
Caverna guard Faulkner led Kentucky boys’ high school hoops in scoring (35.9 ppg) last year.
As a NKU freshman, the 6-5, 230-pound Williams has averaged 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds.
“He started being the most consistent freshman I’ve ever coached,” Brannen said. “(Now), he’s probably one of the most consistent players I’ve ever coached — and I’ve been at every level.”
The willowy 6-1, 165-pound Faulkner (7.5 ppg) has not been as consistent, but he has not lost the capacity for explosive scoring. He dropped 24 points on Youngstown State and 29 on Detroit Mercy.
Getting Williams and Faulkner gave NKU street cred on the recruiting trail and may have helped Brannen land class of 2017 in-state standout Chris Vogt. The slender 7-footer from Graves County needs a college weight program but is a skilled player with ample upside.
“Good players want to play with good players,” Brannen said. “We had an outstanding first recruiting class.”
Friday night, on college basketball’s biggest stage, NKU’s nucleus of homeboys gets a shot at our state’s marquee basketball program.
“We know they are going to come out amped to play us,” said Kentucky forward Derek Willis, one of two in-state products (with Dominique Hawkins) in John Calipari’s playing rotation.
Since 2012, there have been four victories for No. 15 seeds over No. 2s. Still, it would be an unthinkable upset if a team in its first D-I trip to the Big Dance since transitioning from Division II took down the program that has won more NCAA tourney games (121) than anyone.
Whatever happens, NKU’s wager on homegrown talent has already been a hit.