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NCAA Tournament 2019: Northern Kentucky hopes to take next step in program’s rise against Texas Tech

The Norse have an opportunity to brighten their shine.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Tulsa Practice Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

TULSA, Okla. -- People in Kentucky like basketball. Take a moment, let the surprise wear off.

You can’t swing a stick without hitting a Kentucky or Louisville fan in the Commonwealth. Therein lies the challenge for Northern Kentucky when it comes to acquiring fans. Not to mention, the Norse have to contend with Cincinnati and Xavier just up the highway.

It’s all part of the challenge for a program that transitioned from Division II hoops less than a decade ago.

“You have five Division I programs within an hour and a half of each other,” Northern Kentucky forward Drew McDonald said. “So it’s definitely a basketball-crazy area, and I think that’s helped us in the fact we’ve kind of been the Cinderella story. We’ve kind of come from nowhere.

“I think we’ve kind of been the team that can be a second supporting team behind Kentucky or Xavier.”

McDonald, a 6-foot-8 senior post player, offered up a comparison that the Norse are striving for.

“You look where Wichita State was or Xavier was 10 to 20 years ago,” he said, “we’re not that much different than that. Just the whole university, I can see us definitely being a big-time program in the future.”

A win over No. 3 seed Texas Tech on Friday would go a long way to boosting those odds. The No. 14 Norse (26-8) will tip off against the Red Raiders (26-6) at 1:30 eastern at the BOK Center.

“What sticks out most is they’re one of the top teams defensively in the country,” said Jalen Tate, a 6-foot-6 sophomore guard for the Norse who averages 14 points a game. “We focused on that, being able to still run our offense and still get into the pace of the game the way we like it.”

Northern Kentucky coach John Brannen likened a matchup with Texas Tech to a holiday gift gone wrong.

“Selection Sunday is like Christmas morning,” said the Norse’s fourth-year coach. “Only I didn’t ask to play Texas Tech. You know what I mean? They get to ask what they want their gifts to be. They’re an unbelievable team. From a coaching standpoint, it’s enjoyable to watch, but I’m on the other side of it. I have to come with a plan to attack it.”

If Brannen’s game plan comes to fruition, the Norse will be one step closer to being America’s up-and-coming darling.