Northern Kentucky University completed the strenuous climb from Division II to Division I and became eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2016-17.
Now that the Norse are in the big leagues, they find themselves once again looking up at the mountaintop from base camp.
NKU will make its first appearance ever in the NCAA Tournament on Friday night in Indianapolis. The Norse, champions of the Horizon League Tournament, are a No. 15 seed in the South Regional.
Northern Kentucky’s reward? A round-of-64 matchup with a school it has watched do this many times before — the No. 2-seeded University of Kentucky (29-5).
“We’ll be prepared to compete,” second-year head coach John Brannen told The Associated Press after the Norse (24-10) earned the Horizon’s automatic berth.
The Norse, who finished fourth in the Horizon League in the regular season, got hot at the right time. They bring a six-game winning streak into Friday night’s game.
“Our mindset is going to be the same as going in against any other team that we played this year,” senior Cole Murray said Sunday night. “We’ll do the same things we’ve done all year to be successful. We’ll come in, we’ll be prepared. Our coaches will give us the right game plan. We’ll do our best to execute it and go show what we’ve got out there. We’ll be prepared.”
When NKU shows up in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, fans of Kentucky high school basketball will see some familiar faces.
▪ Drew McDonald, a sophomore from Newport Central Catholic, is NKU’s leading scorer (16.4) and rebounder (7.7). He shoots 73.6 percent from the free-throw line and 38.8 percent from long range.
▪ Lavone Holland II, a junior from Ballard, averages 14.3 points and tops the Norse in assists (4.1) and steals (1.3).
▪ Carson Williams, a freshman from Owen County, is Kentucky’s most recent Mr. Basketball winner. He’s third on the team in scoring with 10.5 points and second in rebounding at 5.8. He shoots 59.7 percent from the field.
▪ Mason Faulkner, a freshman from Caverna, averages 7.5 points and 2.4 rebounds.
McDonald, the team’s biggest player at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, wants to see Northern Kentucky’s magical season continue for as long as possible.
“We got another game to play,” he said after contributing 14 points and 12 rebounds in the Horizon League title game. “I got the chills just thinking about it.”
Northern Kentucky’s tournament opener
Northern Kentucky vs. Kentucky
South Regional in Indianapolis
When: About 9:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Records: Northern Kentucky 24-10, Kentucky 29-5
School colors: Blue and White
Head coach: John Calipari (649-190 in 25 college season overall; 243-52 in eight seasons at UK)
All-time series: Kentucky leads 1-0
Common opponents with Northern Kentucky: UK defeated Valparaiso 87-63 on Dec. 7.
Other notable games this season: UK earned its No. 2 seed by virtue of capturing the SEC regular-season and tournament championships and winning its final 11 games. The Wildcats own a regular-season victory over South Regional No. 1 seed North Carolina.