From atop the Great American Ball Park pitcher’s mound before the Cincinnati Reds faced the Colorado Rockies last month, John Brannen toed the rubber.
“You actually get up there, that mound seems real high, and the catcher starts looking pretty small,” the Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball coach says.
For Brannen, a 1992 graduate of Newport Catholic and a lifelong Reds fan, throwing a ceremonial first pitch May 20 before Cincinnati played “was a big check off my bucket list.”
When last we saw NKU’s men’s hoopsters, the Norse were giving the Kentucky Wildcats a spirited fight in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. This was after Northern, a former NCAA Division II power, qualified for the Division I tourney in the school’s first year of eligibility.
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As a result, Brannen, a former player at both Morehead State and Marshall and a former assistant coach at Eastern Kentucky and Alabama, has found a lot of doors opening this offseason.
The NKU coach, 43, got to meet Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin when the Reds played host to “Northern Kentucky Night.”
“Hall of Fame banquets, stuff like that, there have been a lot more requests,” Brannen said. “I might have gotten a free meal or two out of (making the NCAA Tournament), too.”
NKU (24-11) making the D-I NCAA tourney for the initial time would have generated interest regardless, but playing Kentucky in the round of 64 amplified Northern’s achievement by putting the Norse in front of UK’s huge in-state audience.
Initially, Brannen says his family, especially his twin daughters, Jaylee and Katelyn, had trepidation when NKU was paired opposite UK on Selection Sunday.
“You don’t find out who you are playing till after 6 o’clock, so I got home late from preparing (for Kentucky),” Brannen said. “My daughters were scared to go to school (the next day). They were afraid all their friends, all the UK fans in the school, would turn against them.
“So when I took them to school Monday morning, I met with the principal to express that concern. But it was nothing like that at all. This community was really excited for NKU.”
Northern Kentucky gave a good account of itself against the Wildcats. NKU cut an 18-point UK second-half lead to seven on a Drew McDonald three-pointer with 32 seconds left before ultimately falling 79-70.
Since Brannen returned to his home state as NKU head man before the 2015-16 season, Northern Kentucky has had ample success recruiting in the commonwealth.
Against UK in the NCAA Tournament, products of Kentucky high school basketball combined to score 60 of NKU’s 70 points.
Point guard Lavone Holland II from Ballard had a game-high 22 points. Owen County product Carson Williams — Kentucky’s 2016 Mr. Basketball — went for 21 points and nine rebounds. McDonald (Newport Catholic) had 14 points, while Mason Faulkner (Caverna) hit a three-pointer.
All of them will be back in 2017-18. They will be joined by another in-state standout, former Graves County 7-footer Chris Vogt.
“I feel like (Vogt) gives us just what we needed, some length, some rim protection. Plus, I was tired of being the tallest guy on the team,” says the 6-foot-8 Brannen.
Coming off an NCAA Tournament trip with the core of its team returning, Northern Kentucky will face a different level of expectations in 2017-18.
“But we’re not going to change our approach,” Brannen says. “Our goal will be to be playing the best we can play (by Horizon League Tournament time). If we succeed in doing that, we’ll let the outcomes take care of themselves.”
Actually, that was pretty much Brannen’s approach last month when he threw out that first pitch at the Reds game.
“There were several bets that I couldn’t keep (the ball) out of the dirt,” Brannen says. “Well, I did do that. I can’t say I threw a strike, because it was a little high. But I did throw off the top of the mound, and I kept the ball out of the dirt.”