Northern Kentucky’s win over Milwaukee in Tuesday night’s Horizon League championship game was significant for all of the “normal” reasons any other conference championship win is special. The Norse get to continue playing on college basketball’s biggest stage, and are rewarded for a season of effort and a great conference tournament run.
But there is so much more to Northern Kentucky’s win than just that.
First, there is the fact that Northern Kentucky’s Horizon League Tournament win came in its first year of full eligibility as a Division-I program. Northern Kentucky began the transition to Division-I in the 2012-13 season, and were finally given their active status in August of 2016.
That means this season was the first in which the Norse were eligible to play in the postseason. According to Northern Kentucky’s media guide, they now join North Dakota State as the only two schools to make the NCAA Tournament in their first season of eligibility since 1970.
Building a program to the point where it can compete upon immediate eligibility is no easy task. It takes a tremendous amount of coaching and recruiting skill to convince a roster of players to bide their time and patiently wait for their chance to play in the postseason. A senior starter, such as Northern Kentucky’s Cole Murray, played his entire career knowing he would only get one shot at the NCAA Tournament. Getting players to “buy in” and stick around through the reclassification process cannot be an easy task.
Some of the program’s upperclassmen have had to endure a change in conference as well. Northern Kentucky left the Atlantic Sun for the Horizon League prior to the 2015-16 season. They also went through a coaching change when John Brannen replaced Dave Bezold, who had led the program for more than a decade, which also took place prior to the 2015-16 season.
But Brannen was able to get the players to buy-in and got a crop of young talent to come in and contribute immediately. As Northern Kentucky’s star sophomore Drew McDonald said following his team’s semifinal win over Youngstown State, “Coach Brannen got the job and he called me that first night and he told us in the locker room the he was going to win a championship with some of the guys in the locker room.”
Despite not knowing when that might be or who would still be around to see it, McDonald said “we believed him, we bought-in and it’s been a team effort from there.”
The second factor that makes what Northern Kentucky has done so special is the local makeup of their roster. Both Brannen and McDonald are products of the Northern Kentucky region. Beyond those two, the Norse have three other Kentucky natives on the roster.
Having a local flavor to the roster and the two main faces hailing from the region has been a major boost for Northern Kentucky. “When I took the job it was all about providing something for Northern Kentucky to get excited about,” Brannen said in that press conference following the semifinal win.
McDonald also touched upon what it meant to him to win in front of his hometown, saying “when I committed to NKU...I felt there was no other way than to take my hometown team and a team that I had followed a little bit growing up and just lay the foundation for that school.”
Getting not only the players, but also the local community to buy in has helped the Norse grow, and it was evident on Tuesday night in Detroit. A great deal of the Northern Kentucky faithful made the weeknight trek up I-75 to Joe Louis Arena and made themselves heard.
“I was in the locker room... and I started to ask one of our staff members how the crowd was tonight and I remember the announcer announced ‘the number four seed Northern Kentucky Norse versus Milwaukee’ and after I heard our name I didn’t hear anything else,” said Brannen in regards to the size and volume of the Norse fans that made the trip to the championship game.
As McDonald stated, this time following the championship victory, “This championship’s more than just the players, the coaches, or the guys in the locker room. It’s the whole school and it’s the community...it’s Northern Kentucky’s championship.”
That sense of community makes Northern Kentucky’s Horizon League championship more than just a win for a program. It’s a win for an entire region of people.
The program itself is certainly special as well. Beyond it being Northern Kentucky’s first year eligible for the NCAA Tournament, it was also just the Norse’s second in the Horizon League.
Year one in the Horizon League was a struggle for Northern Kentucky as they finished their inaugural campaign with a 9-21 record. While there was a feeling that the program had potential to be great, the quick turnaround was unprecedented.
With the championship game win, Northern Kentucky sits at 24-10. That is a 15 game improvement in the win column in just one year. As a result, Brannen was named the Horizon League’s Coach of the Year in just his second season at the helm. McDonald was a First Team All-Horizon League selection, and freshman Carson Williams was an All-Freshman Team pick. Northern Kentucky’s program is oozing with potential and it doesn’t stop with just those three.
Northern Kentucky loses just one rotation player (pending any transfers that may occur) this offseason in the senior Murray. The rest could be back, including junior LaVone Holland who was named the Horizon League Tournament Most Valuable Player on Tuesday night. Outside of Williams, freshmen Mason Faulkner and Dantez Walton contributed all season long. Add that all up, plus the fact that the Norse will welcome in a seven-footer named Chris Vogt next season, and there is reason to be excited about Northern Kentucky for at least the next few seasons.
The Northern Kentucky Norse are a “feel good” story for this March. Their big turnaround from last season, the fact that it was their first year of eligibility, and the support of their community make for great story lines. But the Norse don’t plan on being a one-hit wonder. Expect to see them competing for Horizon League titles and possibly even more in the years to come. This championship could be just a stepping stone to greatness for this upstart program.