Northern Kentucky University has reached their first NCAA Tournament thanks to some of the best basketball the Commonwealth has to offer.
It starts at the top with head coach John Brannen. A native of nearby Alexandria, Ky., Brannen spent three of his first four years coaching as an assistant at EKU from 2000-03. Brannon spent a decade coaching with Anthony Grant, first at VCU then Alabama, acting as the interim head coach of the Crimson Tide before returning home to NKU.
Much of Brannen’s early success is attributed to recruiting excellent local talent. A year ago Carson Williams and Mason Faulkner were at the Mr. Basketball ceremonies. Friday they’ll play in the NCAA Tournament.
Faulkner is a from Glasgow, Ky., a product of Caverna High School. He became a Mr. Basketball finalist after averaging 35.9 points per game as a senior. The elite scorer was a consensus First Team All-State Selection. The first guard off the bench for the Norse, Faulkner averages 7.5 points, 2.1 assists and 2.4 rebounds in about 18 minutes per game.
Williams grew up much closer to Highland Heights. 2016’s Mr. Basketball is from Owen County, just a short drive up I-71 to NKU. Williams’ Mr. Basketball bid was a bit of an upset over the preseason favorite and Xavier signee, Quentin Goodin, but the numbers do not lie. Williams averaged more than 25 points and 10 rebounds as a senior to lead Owen County to a school-record 29 wins. He finished his career just 33 points shy of 3,000. His 1,671 rebounds are the fifth-most in the history of Kentucky high school basketball.
In his first season with the Norse, Williams has exceeded expectations. The team’s third-leading scorer averages 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game and shoots 59.7 percent from the field. The 6’5″ forward has created a powerful one-two punch alongside Drew McDonald, another local talent.
McDonald is a sophomore who starred at Newport Central Catholic, leading his team to three straight All “A” Classic Championships. He was also a fantastic golfer in high school, winning the All “A” individual state title. He hopes to use his golf talents at NKU before his eligibility expires. McDonald is the son of former NKU athletes. His father Jeff played tennis and his mother Christie Freppon played basketball, still the school’s No. 12 all-time scorer with 1,339 career points.
McDonald is undoubtedly the Norse’s best player. Despite being an undersized forward at 6’7,” he uses his body well in the post, especially on defense, moving his feet to keep opponents in front of him without fouling. Offensively, he has a killer spin move back to a right hand hook that opponents fall for every time. He averages 16.4 points (48.2 FG%) and 7.7 rebounds a game.
Lavone Holland completes NKU’s talented trio of Commonwealth talent. The athletic junior guard from Ballard High School does not have fond memories of playing Dominique Hawkins, thanks to this play.
NKU’s best guard averages 14.3 points, 4.1 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game. For those who are not keeping track at home, NKU’s top three scorers are all underclassmen from the state of Kentucky.
The Commonwealth’s finest carried Northern Kentucky their first NCAA Tournament berth against the state’s flagship institution. You better believe they’ll be playing for something more than a second round game when they take the court against the Cats on Friday.