The Norse finished the regular season ranked first in the Horizon League with an overall record of 22-8 and 12-3 for conference play. The team will be defending their title as conference champions after winning the tournament in 2017.
Fort Thomas Matters spoke with Head Coach John Brannen and Assistant Coach Sean Dwyer while the team was preparing for the upcoming tournament. NKU's first 2018 Motor City Madness appearance will be on Saturday, March 3 at 8:00pm. They will take on the winner of Friday's matchup between Cleveland State (8) and Youngstown State (9).
During conference play, NKU played the Cleveland State and Youngstown State teams twice, and beat both teams each time. Those games have certainly helped NKU prepare for either of those two possible showdowns on Saturday. “When you’ve already played those teams, and in this case twice, you get an opportunity to look at their game plan against your system and see what they’re trying to do to attack your offensive and defensive schemes. It allows us to tweak some things and to have more purposeful practices. It’s always easier for players to understand when the film is against themselves,” said Dwyer.
Going into the tournament, NKU isn't looking to reinvent the wheel. They plan to keep doing what they've been doing, and continue to play their game just as they've played it all season. “I think that it's playing our identity, which we've done all year,” said Brannen. “Defending and playing with pace offensively. Those are the two things we talk about.”
Drew McDonald has been a standout player throughout the regular season. This Junior led the Norse in points and rebounds, and joined the coveted 1,000 point club back in December 2017 during a game against Morehead State. Along with Carson Williams, McDonald was named as a member of the Horizon League All-Academic Team. McDonald has consistently been a major factor behind the team's winning season, and will be one to watch in the tournament as well.
The Norse's starting rotation of Drew McDonald, Lavone Holland II, Carson Williams, Jordan Garnett, and Jalen Tate are certainly a force to be reckoned with on the court. That being said, one of NKU's strengths is the depth of their bench. Throughout the season, the team's depth has played an important role in securing wins. “I think early in conference play, we were still trying to get through that and have everybody find their role, understand their role, and star in the role. As conference season goes on and with any good team, you begin to star in your role. That's kind of what we have now. We have guys that are understanding exactly what we need them to do, and with an understanding comes an ability to attack that. Overall, role allocation and acceptance of that has increased throughout conference play,” said Brannen.
NKU has regularly relied on the bench to fight off fatigue and also lift up the team overall. Players like Tyler Sharpe, Mason Faulkner, and Dantez Walton have come off the bench to help fight for the Norse. Being able to play nine or more guys each game has been beneficial to the team all season. “Tyler Sharpe’s toughness and shot making have been a huge asset. More than anything, the guys coming off of the bench have really bought into their roles, and that understanding and starring in their roles has been awesome,” said Dwyer.
The Norse took home the title as the number one defensive team in the Horizon League. According to Coach Brannen, that accolade had a lot to do with the team's perimeter defense, and the team's overall versatility. “Jordan (Garnett) and Jalen (Tate) always usually guard the opposing team's top perimeter players. Jordan being the guy who usually guards someone with maybe little more physicality because he's a strong wing player. We have versatility on our perimeter in terms of putting guys on different people, so I like our versatility defensively.”
When the Norse show up to Detroit this year as returning champions, they will also be seeking a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament. One might think that the events of 2017 would add pressure to the reigning champs, but that's not the case for Brannen. “There's a recognition of our program in terms of being a pretty good basketball team, but we've got to play well to win. I feel like I'm excited. Each team is it's own deal. You only get this team for one year. People graduate and move on, so we take advantage of each team, and our goal each year is to play as long as we can,” said Brannen.
Brannen took over the Head Coach role 2015, and has revolutionized the program since that time. NKU has played at a level that has forced people to take notice, and has caught the attention of the entire Northern Kentucky area. When Brannen arrived to take the helm the three years ago, one of the goals was to not just build a powerful team, but to also build a program that the community can be excited about supporting. “The way that you do that that is to have a championship caliber program comprised of championship caliber people. You gotta have both so that people will want to associate with your program. For our entire organization and for me being here, there's a lot of pride in that,” said Brannen.
According to Dwyer, watching the program grow has been an exciting experience. “The increased attendance to games and the fan support has helped spark our run and created an excitement around the program. We know that NKU is the community’s team and we are excited to represent the area and to grow the program and brand... Our players and athletic administration deserve a lot of credit for going to work every day and helping us build and create the excitement,” said Dwyer.
Whether the Norse are once again crowned Horizon League tournament champions or not, one thing is clear: NKU is Northern Kentucky's team, and they are proud to represent the area.