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NCAA Tournament profile: Get to know the Northern Kentucky Norse

Familiarize yourself with the Horizon League champs.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Kentucky at Cincinnati The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODA

After a dominant showing in the Horizon League championship game, Northern Kentucky punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Here’s what you need to know about the Norse.

Hey, they sound kinda familiar?

That’s right, Northern Kentucky should sound somewhat familiar. The Norse made the NCAA Tournament in their first year of eligibility in 2017 and played in the NIT last season. This year marks their second NCAA Tournament bid in three years.

Where exactly is Northern Kentucky?

NKU is located in Highland Heights, Kentucky. It’s only a few miles south of Cincinnati and the Ohio River. The University of Cincinnati actually played its home games at NKU’s BB&T Arena last year while their arena was undergoing renovations.

Cool. So who’s their coach?

John Brannen is in his fourth season as head coach of the Norse. He stems from the Anthony Grant coaching tree and spent time as an assistant under Grant at VCU and Alabama. In his brief but successful stint, Brannen has gone 81-50 (.618) with two NCAA Tournaments and a regular season Horizon League title to his name. At just 45 years old, Brannen is one of the rising stars in the mid-major coaching ranks.

What about the players? Who’s the star?

Drew McDonald has cemented himself as one of the all-time Norse greats with another trip to the NCAA Tournament. The senior big man is the school’s all-time leading scorers with over 2,000 points over four years. This year, he nearly averaged a double-double with 19.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Oh, and he shoots 40 percent from the behind the arc. He’s just as skilled on the perimeter as he is in the post, making him one of the tougher matchups for opposing frontcourts. He’s scored in double figures in all but one of NKU’s games this year, tallied 14 double-doubles and even put up a triple-double against Morehead State with 12 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists.

Who else do I need to know?

Jalen Tate - who’s the younger brother of former Ohio State standout Jae’Sean Tate - is a do-it-all wing for the Norse that is one of the offense’s primary catalysts. This year he’s averaged 14 points, four rebounds and four assists per game while also shooting above 40 percent from deep, making him just one of three players in college basketball to do so.

The Norse’s second leading scorer, Tyler Sharpe, is a former walk-on that has developed into a guy capable of averaging 14 points per game. The lefty guard is the one of the best shooters in the Horizon League, knocking in almost 38 percent of his attempts on nearly seven attempts per game. He’s a pesky defender as well, averaging 1.5 steals per game.

Dantez Walton is the fourth and final Norse player to average in double figures. The junior forward tallies 11 points per game and pulls in 5.5 rebounds. Trevon Faulkner and Zaynah Robinson have each spent time in the starting lineup as well at different points in the season. Chris Vogt has been the most valuable big man off the bench for the Norse, and at 7’1, he’s a huge deterrent at the rim with his shot blocking ability.

What makes them dangerous?

Northern Kentucky puts up 79 points per game and is rated as the No. 77 offense on KenPom. The Norse are among the best in the country when it comes to sharing the ball, and their assist percentage (percent of field goals assisted) of 62.1 percent ranks third in the country. They hit 55 percent of their attempts inside the arc and 36.4 percent from distance, making them a capable threat all over the floor. They rebound well and can play physical, making them a tough out for anyone, regardless of seeding.

Have you ever talked to their coach, perhaps in an easily consumable audio format?

You’re in luck! John Brannen joined us on our podcast last season to discuss what it’s been like building the NKU program.