In its first year of eligibility for the NCAA Tournament, Northern Kentucky didn’t leave anything to chance. The Norse beat Milwaukee, 59-53, in the Horizon League Championship on Tuesday.
NKU is only the seventh team to make the NCAA Tournament in its first year of eligibility as a Division I team.
“Not only did we have transition from Division II to Division I, but we also had transition within conference,” NKU head coach John Brannen said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney, referring to the move to the Horizon League. “Our focus was to build culture the first year and to recruit our tails off with mostly high school kids and some D-I transfers in hopes that we cold continue to build this thing over a period of time. This year, it clicked. It became a team of destiny, to be honest with you.”
Brannen, 43, arrived at NKU in 2015 with a simple message to recruits: catch the vision.
“Come here, be the first to do something,” Brannen said. “Very rarely do you have the chance to be significant in your life. You’ll be significant to your family, but outside of that, when do you get a chance to make a mark and be significant? If you come here and take Northern Kentucky University to a championship, you’ll be legendary – because you’ll be the first to ever do it. That’s what our young men have done.”
NKU has four players scoring in double figures: sophomore forward Drew McDonald, who is averaging 16.4 points per game, junior guard Lavone Holland II (14.3), freshman forward Carson Williams (10.5) and senior guard Cole Murray (10.2). Freshman forward Mason Faulkner, meanwhile, is averaging 7.5 points per game.
The Norse are one of the youngest – and tightest – teams in the country.
“Our entire program is built around trust,” Brannen said. “We define trust as investing and believing in each other without knowing the outcome. So this team believed and invested in each other without having any idea what the outcome would be.”
The outcome, as it turns out, was a league championship.
“Now that that’s come to fruition, they’re running through walls for everybody,” Brannen said. “So now it’s like, okay, there’s a belief, there’s a trust within our program, there’s a toughness within our program. I think now it’s the opportunity to go on the national stage and play against an opponent that will obviously be a high-major team. I believe in our guys. We’ll be a tough matchup for anybody we play against.”
NKU, which is located in Highland Heights, Kentucky, resides in what Brannen calls a “basketball-crazed area.” The Norse are just a few miles from Xavier and Cincinnati and about 75 minutes from UK.
Although NKU is new to the national scene, Brannen does not expect to play in the First Four.
“We’re 24-10 in a pretty solid mid-major conference,” he said. “I’d like to get a 14-seed, but we’ll be in that 14-15 range.”