With No. 2 seed Kentucky playing No. 15 seed Northern Kentucky University on Friday night in a first-round game of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s South Region, here are five things to know about the Norse:
1. NKU earned an NCAA bid in its first year of eligibility
A former Division II power that played (and lost) in the NCAA D-II national title games in 1996 and 1997 under Ken Shields, Northern Kentucky began the transition to Division I in 2012. Originally a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Norse moved to the Horizon League. After the transition period, the Norse became eligible this year to play in the NCAA Tournament.
During the transition period, the Norse had four straight losing seasons. The first three came under Dave Bezold, who was let go at the end of the 2014-15 campaign. After going 161-79 in eight seasons with NKU as a Division II school, Bezold was 33-54 during the transition to Division I.
John Brannen, a former Alabama assistant with deep Northern Kentucky connections, was hired as Bezold’s replacement. NKU went from 9-21 his first season to 24-10 this season, the second-biggest turnaround in terms of victories this season behind Richard Pitino at Minnesota.
NKU (12-6) finished tied for third with Green Bay (12-6) behind Oakland (14-4) and Valparaiso (14-4) during the regular season in the Horizon. Seeded fourth in the tournament, the Norse beat Wright State 82-77, Youngstown State 84-74 and Milwaukee 59-53 to become the league’s automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament.
NKU is the seventh school to qualify for the tournament in its first year. The achievement adds to the momentum of a program that plays in the impressive BB&T Arena, which seats 9,200 in Highland Heights and is now the host for the Kentucky Girls’ State Tournament, held last week. That’s a long way from 1971, when NKU began its program playing in the old Newport High School gym.
2. John Brannen is an up-and-coming coach
Brannen, 43, was born in Alexandria and grew up in Covington. His brother Grant is the former head basketball coach at Newport Central Catholic and is now head coach at Walton-Verona.
He began his college career at Morehead State before transferring to Marshall, where he played one year under Billy Donovan before Donovan left for Florida. In his second and final year at Marshall, Brannen led the Southern Conference in scoring and was MVP of the conference tournament as a senior. He also was a Rhodes Scholar finalist as a senior.
He started his coaching career with gigs at St. Bonaventure, Eastern Kentucky and the College of Charleston before being hired by Anthony Grant at VCU. Grant was an assistant to Donovan at Marshall when Brannen played there. Grant then took Brannen to Tuscaloosa when Grant got the job at Alabama. The two spent six years there before Grant was fired at the 2015-16 season. Brannen coached the Tide in the NIT, where it went 1-1.
Several young coaches could raise stock at NCAA Tournament
During his time at Alabama, Brannen was an invited member of the Villa 7 Consortium, an annual networking event sponsored by Nike for up-and-coming assistant coaches, before getting the NKU head coaching job in 2015.
His 2016-17 team undertook an ambitious schedule that included losses at Illinois (79-64) and West Virginia (92-61). A three-game losing streak early in conference play dropped the Norse to 3-4 before it rallied to win nine of its last 11 to earn Brannen league coach of the year honors.
Milwaukee (11-24) had lost nine straight games going into the league tournament, but it got hot at the right time, beating Detroit Mercy 85-60, Valparaiso 43-41 and Illinois-Chicago 74-68 before losing to NKU.
3. NKU has plenty of Kentucky connections
Drew McDonald, a 6-foot-7 sophomore from Newport Central Catholic, leads the team in scoring at 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds a game. He scored 26 points in the semifinal win over Youngstown State, then scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the win over Milwaukee in the Horizon final.
LaVone Holland played against UK’s Dominique Hawkins in the 2012 Kentucky Boys State Tournament championship game. Holland scored 15 points. and Hawkins scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as Madison Central defeated Ballard 65-64. Now a 6-foot-1 junior, Holland scored 20 points in the Horizon League title game.
Kentucky’s 2016 Mr. Basketball, Carson Williams, a 6-5 forward, averaged 26.3 points and 10.7 rebounds as a senior at Owen County. Williams played with Drew McDonald in AAU basketball and knew John Brannen’s brother, Grant. John Brannen said one of the first calls he made after getting the NKU job was to offer Williams a scholarship.
The move paid off. Williams posted a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds at Illinois. He had four double-doubles this season while averaging 10.7 points and 5.9 rebounds. Williams has shot 59.7 percent from the floor. He scored 16 points in the team’s quarterfinal win over Wright State.
4. RPI likes NKU more than KenPom or Sagarin
The Norse have won six straight and 10 of their last 11. The only loss was a four-point decision, 81-77, at Youngstown State on Feb. 18.
Ken Pomeroy’s analytics numbers rank NKU at No. 147 in overall efficiency. The Norse rank 132nd on offense and 186th on defense. Brannen doesn’t have a big team. There is no player on the roster taller than 6-7. Pomeroy ranks NKU at No. 344 in offensive shot block percentage. NKU gets 12.7 percent of its shots blocked. The average is 9.2 percent.
The Norse has made 45.9 percent of its shots, compared to 44.0 for the opposition. It did hold Milwaukee to 36.2 percent shooting in the championship game. It’s not a particularly good free throw-shooting team, just 67.6 percent form the line.
NKU can hit the three-pointer. It made 13 of 27 shots behind the arc in the win over Youngstown State, although it was just six of 21 from three in the victory over Milwaukee. It is shooting 35.3 percent from three this season.
Jeff Sagarin ranks NKU at No. 154, and its strength of schedule at No. 239. Sagarin ranked the Horizon League as the 19th-best conference in the country. The RPI ranked NKU at No. 85, with a strength of schedule at No. 225.
5. UK and NKU have played once before.
The two teams met Nov. 10, 2013, in Rupp Arena, with Kentucky jumping to a 48-22 lead and winning 93-63. NKU did play the Cats competitively in the second half, when it was outscored just 45-41.
Julius Randle scored 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for Kentucky, which battered the Norse on the glass 51-23. Randle made 10 of 14 free throws that night as UK improved to 2-0.
Aaron Harrison scored 16 points for Kentucky, which shot 54.5 percent from the floor, compared with 32.8 for NKU. Kentucky averaged 1.347 points per possession, compared with 0.0911 for the visitors.
NKU has come a long way since that season, when it ended up 9-21. Kentucky made it to the national championship game before losing to Connecticut.
Northern Kentucky men’s basketball 2016-17
vs. Austin Peay
vs. Wright St
vs. Youngstown St.
Kentucky vs. Northern Kentucky
When: Friday, 9:40 p.m. ET (approximate)
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
TV: CBS with Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson
Radio: UK Network (WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1) with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt