April 14th, 2019: One of the biggest days in the history of Northern Kentucky basketball.
On that day, John Brannen, the man who brought the Norse into the Division I age and made them relevant, took the head coaching job at the University of Cincinnati. Northern Kentucky needed to move on from the guy who went 81-51 with a pair of Horizon League tournament championships and NCAA Tournament appearances. The guy who won 71 percent of his games over the last three seasons.
The coaching search started immediately, and the results didn’t disappoint.
10 days following Brannen’s departure, the Norse found his replacement. Texas assistant coach Darrin Horn was the man for the job.
Horn was previously the head coach at Western Kentucky and South Carolina, bringing Power 5 experience to the Horizon League. He has shown that he knows how to win, taking the Hilltoppers all the way to the Sweet 16 in 2008. The success didn’t really translate to the higher level, however, as he only took the Gamecocks to the NIT once and never reached the NCAA Tournament.
But he’s got a lot to work with as he gets started in Highland Heights.
Following their second-straight Horizon League regular season championship and their second NCAA tournament in three years, the Norse aren’t losing much. They graduate only one player, although that’s Horizon League Player of the Year and offensive leader Drew McDonald. McDonald led the Norse in scoring, rebounding, and was second in assists. He came in clutch once the calendar turned to March, headlined by a game-winner over Oakland in the Horizon League semifinals, keeping Northern Kentucky’s season alive.
Even with McDonald’s departure, Northern Kentucky returns four starters, averaging over 45 points per game between them. The bench was thin last year, though, and the Norse will need more from them in order to compete.
With both Tyler Sharpe and Jalen Tate returning, the guard play won’t fall off at Northern Kentucky. The uptempo, sharpshooting style that Brannen started with the Norse doesn’t look to be changing as Horn’s teams were always in the top half of the NCAA in three-pointers attempted and made every season. The Norse were 58th in three-pointers attempted and 88th in three-point percentage.
Horn is a defense-first coach, always pressuring the ball and pressing. Northern Kentucky’s defense was no slouch last year, as it was second in the Horizon League in points allowed at only 68.9 points per game. The mixture of offense to defense is something that the Norse did well with last season, leading the Horizon in point differential at +9.6 points per game.
It all combined to make Northern Kentucky one of the more attractive job openings in mid-major basketball. After finishing second in the Horizon League last season, the Norse should be in position to do just as well in 2019-20. They had the best overall record in the league at 26-10, setting the school’s win record in its Division I era. But there’s plenty of room to grow.
Coming into a job with the expectations that Northern Kentucky fans and students have, Horn needs to get off to a quick start. Folks in Highland Heights have plenty of reasons to think that can happen.