In their first year ever eligible for post season play, the Northern Kentucky University Norse earned the 4-seed in the Horizon League. The other top three seeds all lost in their first game of the tournament, leaving the Norse to take care of business through the Horizon League Tournament and earn their first ever bid to the NCAA Tournament in Division I.
The Norse were just 9-21 last season, and will enter tonight’s game with a 24-10 record. That difference of 15 wins is the biggest turnaround in college basketball this season. Head coach John Brannen took over at NKU less than a year ago and has been making progress since day 1. Brannen came to Northern Kentucky after being an assistant coach at Alabama under Anthony Grant. The Norse played a pretty average schedule this year in comparison to other mid-majors, only playing one NCAA Tournament team in a 92-61 loss at West Virginia.
Having grown up in Northern Kentucky and lived basically my entire life here, I’ve been hearing a lot of trash talk from NKU students about how they’re going to pull off the 15-2 tourney upset. While anything can happen in March, the Norse are going to need strong games from each member of the starting five for any chance of an upset to exist. Let’s take a look at that potential starting five for NKU tonight.
#34 Drew McDonald, Sophomore Forward, 6’7″
Drew McDonald is, without a doubt, the best and most important player on this Northern Kentucky University roster. A Northern Kentucky product himself, McDonald was a Mr. Kentucky Basketball finalist coming out of Newport Central Catholic High School. He was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team last season.
McDonald is leading the Norse in points, rebounds, and blocks this season. He’s putting up 16.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 0.6 blocks per game on the year. Despite being the biggest player in the starting lineup for the Norse, McDonald can get a lot of his points from the perimeter as well as the inside. He’s shooting nearly 39% from deep and 73.6% from the free throw line.
As the biggest guy for NKU, Drew McDonald will draw the challenge of trying to defend Bam Adebayo tonight. In all honesty, I’m thinking NKU will play mostly zone against the Cats to try to make up for the size and athleticism differential, but I’ll operate under an assumption that there will be some man to man played. While McDonald does venture on the perimeter often, his ability to handle Bam in the post could prove detrimental early for the Norse if Coach Cal chooses to work through Bam.
#30 Lavone Holland II, Junior Guard, 6’1″
Lavone Holland II is the second of three starters for John Brannen that are Kentucky natives. Holland II went to Ballard High School in Louisville, Kentucky before heading to start his college career at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. He led Coffeyville to a 26-6 record in his one year there. In his first year at NKU, he was third on the team in scoring and rebounding, while leading the team in assists.
Holland II is now second the team in scoring, while still remaining the leading assist man. His per game averages include 14.3 points, 4.1 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and a team-leading 1.3 steals. The Louisville native shoots 37.4% from three point land and 65.6% from the charity stripe this season. Holland II is an extremely fast guard, but sometimes his inability to remain controlled while at top speed can lead to turnovers. He has the most turnovers on the team at 3 per game.
The true point guard for the Norse, Holland II will most likely pair up with De’Aaron Fox for Kentucky. Fox’s speed is almost unparalleled in the college basketball landscape, so it will be something that Holland II will most likely have never experienced before. I look for Fox’s defensive abilities to be a key factor in throwing Holland II off of his game, therefore throwing the entire NKU offensive of rhythm.
#23 Carson Williams, Freshman Forward, 6’5″
Carson Williams, the third starter in a row from the state of Kentucky, is the lone starting freshman for John Brannen this season. Williams was the state of Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 2016 while averaging 26.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in his senior season for Owen County High School. He was rated as a 3-star recruit coming out of high school.
Williams has played more of a bruiser role this season for the Norse. His interior game is his strong suit, to complement the perimeter game of McDonald. Williams is the leading rebounder for NKU this season at 5.8 per contest. He’s also adding in 10.5 points, 1.2 assists, and a 68.6% from the free throw line. Williams is the only Norse starter to not be a three-point shooter, as he’s 0/2 for his collegiate career from deep.
There are essentially two ways for Kentucky to decide to guard Carson Williams. Since he plays more of the 4 spot for the Norse, it would make sense to match up Derek Willis with him. However, due to the nature of Derek Willis’ defensive ability, he may be more suited to match up with the 6’7″ stretch forward, Cole Murray. If so, look for Isaiah Briscoe to once again take on the role of guarding a bigger player to accommodate for this Kentucky team not starting a true small forward.
#25 Cole Murray, Senior Forward, 6’7″
Cole Murray is the only senior for Northern Kentucky University that sees significant playing time. There is only one other senior on this squad, which means NKU should be fighting for the Horizon League title for a few years with all of their young talent. A four-year contributor for the Norse, Murray gives a similar impact of a Dom Hawkins or Derek Willis.
The senior is the most used deep threat that the Norse offer. He’s taken a total of 268 shots on the season and 244 of those shots have been behind the three point arc. Murray has hit 40.6% from 3 point land and 73.9% from the free throw line. Murray averages 10.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game.
Murray matches up best with the style of play as Derek Willis for the Cats. However, due to the post play of Carson Williams, it makes more sense for one of UK’s three guards to stay on the perimeter with Murray. I can see Coach Cal using Malik Monk to guard Murray, using the other two guards on the two starting guards for the Norse.
#1 Jordan Garnett, Junior Guard, 6’5″
The final probable starter for Northern Kentucky University tonight is Jordan Garnett. Garnett is a junior guard out of Indianapolis, making him the second starter from the state of Indiana for the Norse. Garnett brings intangibles to the game for Coach Brannen, rather than showing up big in the stat sheet.
Garnett is scoring 4.8 points, pulling down 3.2 rebounds, and dishing out 1.5 assists per game this season. But just because his stats aren’t huge, don’t let that make you think that Garnett cannot knock down an open shot. Garnett shoots the highest percentage on the team from both three point range (42.5%) and the free throw line (80%).
The junior comes in at 6’5″ and 220 pounds, giving him the height of a guard but the build of a forward. I think that Isaiah Briscoe probably starts out on Garnett defensively, just primarily due to similar body types. Although, with how little Garnett is involved in the offensively flow, I think any of UK’s starters could take this matchup and it be beneficial for the Cats.
NKU is a team playing some of their best basketball of the season at the right time. They’ve been hot as of late, winning 10 of their last 11 games, including their conference tournament championship. 15 over 2 upsets have been common in the last few years, and the Norse will come out jacked up tonight. However, I don’t think that the upset possibility is even as high as most UK fans would admit. UK has a talent and athleticism advantage at all five starting positions, as well as with players coming off the bench. With moment being huge in this tournament, I’d love to see the Cats start out rolling and never look back. Run it up and move on to play the winner of Dayton and Wichita State on Sunday.
Survive and Advance.
Go Cats. Beat Norse.