INDIANAPOLIS — Jalen Tate has been here before.
Not “here” physically inside Indiana Farmer’s Coliseum, but here as in, here in the position of being one of the core pieces of a Northern Kentucky team that just sealed its bid to the NCAA Tournament.
In past years the redshirt junior guard has been a secondary piece of the NKU puzzle. This year, Tate brought home Most Valuable Player honors as the Norse won the Horizon League Tournament for the third time in four years after defeating UIC, 72-61, on Tuesday night. It’s the latest accolade for a guy that’s been an integral part of making Northern Kentucky into one of the most consistent winners in the Midwest.
Tate was a freshman on the the 2016-17 Norse team that made the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in its first year of eligibility after transitioning to Division I. Last year, he brought home Defensive Player of the Year honors and was one of four players to average double-figures on the Norse’s team. This year, he repeated as Defensive Player of the Year while averaging 13.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game.
When the buzzer finally sounded and the celebration ensued, it marked yet another milestone for a program that has seen unprecedented success in such a short stint in Division I. Since Tate stepped on campus, winning has become the norm in Highland Heights.
“It’s the expectation at this point. Nobody expects to get this far and not finish it out,” Tate confidently proclaimed at the podium as he donned a net around his neck.
Tate comes from a family that’s used to college basketball’s biggest stage. His father, Jermaine Tate, made two NCAA Tournament appearances under Bob Huggins. His older brother Jae’Sean made a pair of appearances as well during his stint at Ohio State. Having a family that’s familiar with success has been integral to his development as a player. He won’t taunt his family about having the most NCAA Tournament appearances just yet, but he does recognize the role that his upbringing has had on him.
“It’s surreal,” he said as he tried to stifle a small laugh. “I can’t get too far into it right now, but I feel like looking back when we would have our competitions when I was seven, eight, nine years old — getting beat up on the court outside, being bloody and crying because I can’t get a shot off, or they’re bullying me a little bit — that made me into what I am today.”
When Drew McDonald graduated last year, the Norse needed a new leader to step up. Tate’s jack-of-all trades type of game made him a logical choice to be one of the guys to step up. On Tuesday night, he asserted his will early in the game as the Norse raced out to a lead. In the first half, Tate tallied 14 points to go with three rebounds and assists apiece, as well as defending UIC’s contingent of talented guards.
“I was just doing what I could to help my team, honestly,” Tate bashfully told reporters. “You don’t go into the game thinking ‘alright I’m going to score 30’, you say ‘I’m going to do whatever I can to help our team on this possession, on every single possession on both ends of the floor to help us get a win.”
Tate, along with senior forward Dantez Walton, will get to experience the NCAA Tournament for a third time, which is something that most players don’t even get to do a single time during their careers. For first-year head coach Darrin Horn, taking over a program that had already laid the foundation of a perennial winner came with the challenge of maintaining that success.
“From day one we told these guys we’re here because we have a ton of respect for what you guys have done, and there’s a lot that we can learn about what has made you guys successful,” Horn said following the post-game festivities. “John [Brannen] and his staff did a terrific job of recruiting players that were high character guys that had won.”
“For some of these guys to be going to their third NCAA Tournament, I’m just so thankful to be a part of that.”
As the Norse await Selection Sunday to decide their fate, there’s an opportunity for the team to reflect on just what makes the program special.
“It’s the winning culture,” senior guard Tyler Sharpe shared with a smile on his face “it’s that simple.”