INDIANAPOLIS — So here’s the question. What program has been to more NCAA tournaments the past four years than Indiana or Texas, maybe more the UCLA depending upon Selection Sunday, and just as many as Louisville, Arizona and possibly North Carolina?
Of course. Northern Kentucky.
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The Norse are dancing again, and if the guys in the gray Viking caps and fake orange beards standing on the court after the Horizon League championship game Tuesday night looked happy, well, no wonder. Northern Kentucky had just earned its third NCAA tournament bid in four years. Oh, and there’s something else.
The school has only been eligible to be in the tournament for four years. The Norse are batting .750.
"Everybody who comes through here knows what the goal is, and almost what the expectation is and what it’s become," junior Jalen Tate was saying, with the tournament MVP in his hand after a 71-62 win over UIC. "It’s almost a failed season if we don’t do it."
Few have ever made quicker use of March magic than Northern Kentucky, who was not a fully active Division I program until 2017. The Norse won the Horizon to go to the NCAA tournament that first year. And last season. And now this one. Obviously, this program is a quick learner, and there are several reasons it is not the most conventional story in the bracket. For instance:
- Coach John Brannen engineered the first two trips, but moved across the Ohio River this season to take the Cincinnati job. It’s not every day a program loses its coach, but he’s still working a cab ride away. Brannen has the Bearcats knocking on the NCAA door, too. "I guess it’s unique. You’re not used to seeing situations like that," said senior guard Tyler Sharpe. "I’m glad everything has worked out for everybody."
- In came Texas assistant Darrin Horn, who once both played and coached for Western Kentucky in the Sweet 16. A lot of key players stuck around, too, so Northern Kentucky’s train has kept rolling. These Norse are 23-9.
"Championships are won by administrations, not coaches," Horn said, standing on the court during the victory celebration. "We’ve got an unbelievable administration going all the way back to going to DI, building the arena, hiring a guy like John Brannen. I’m just thankful to be a part of it."
Indeed, the arena is nice enough that Cincinnati shared it for a season while its own was under renovation.
"The coaches change, the opponents change, but a lot of these guys have stayed the same," Horn said Tuesday of this championship run. "Our guys knew what this stage was about. Quite honestly I don’t think they were going to go home without winning this game. When you’ve been doing this long enough, you just know when guys are ready... The difference tonight was these guys know what it takes to win a championship."
- Northern Kentucky is in a crowd when it comes to attracting attention to its basketball program. Cincinnati and Xavier are just across the river. Kentucky is not far down the road. Louisville is another direction. Not that far up I-75 is Dayton. Big names everywhere, so how to get noticed, even when you’re stacking up NCAA Tournament bids?
"Look at this following," Horn said, pointing toward a considerable throng that had made its way to Indianapolis. Including the gang in orange beards. "You don’t do what this program’s been doing without there being already a passion for the program."
Added Sharpe, "We want to have NKU fans, we don’t want Kentucky fans and Cincinnati fans that also like NKU, so we’ve been trying to build our own brand. With the success we’ve had, hopefully we can continue to make a name for Northern Kentucky and not have to share fans anymore."
- March is made for stories like Sharpe. A 6-foot guard, he didn’t exactly have DI recruiters hogging all the chairs in in his living room, so he tried walking on at Louisville. When that didn’t work out, he walked on at Northern Kentucky. By his junior year, he was averaging 14 points, and scoring 25 against Texas Tech in the NCAA tournament. This season, he was second team all-conference.
"It brings it all full circle," he said of another NCAA bid. "I had so many people tell me I had no shot of getting here. I had so many people tell me it was a fluke that I even got here. I put in the work and everything pays off."
- Northern Kentucky was paired with Kentucky its tournament debut in 2017 and played the Wildcats decently, before losing 79-70. Last year, they were beaten 72-57 by Texas Tech in the first round, though Sharpe certainly made an impression. Now they want more. Horn knows about more.
"We told our guys from Day 1 that everything that we did was going to be about winning in March," he said.
Tate:"“He’s advanced in the tournament before. So that was something that he definitely chimed in on when it came to, 'OK look, you guys know what it takes to get to the tournament, now let’s mix in a little bit of what I do to get you guys to advance."
Sharpe: "Now we’re not satisfied with just getting there. We’ll be satisfied when we advance, make some noise and really put NKU on the map."
Three tournament bids in its first four years? Northern Kentucky should kinda be on the map already.