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Introducing Cinderella: Northern Kentucky returns for the third time in four years

Horizon UIC N Kentucky Basketball

Northern Kentucky players celebrate with the trophy after a 71-62 win over Illinois-Chicago in an NCAA college basketball game for the Horizon League men’s tournament championship in Indianapolis, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)


Northern Kentucky jumped out to a big lead on Illinois-Chicago, hanging on despite a wild second half run by the Flames to win the Horizon League tournament title and get back to the Big Dance for the second time in as many season.

In fact, this is the third time in four years that NKU has made it to March’s main event despite the fact that they changed head coaches during the offseason. Making that feat even more impressive, the Norse have only been at the Division I level since 2016.

It’s truly an incredible feat.

Now, they are going to have to win a game in March if this program is truly going to get put on the map the way that other mid-major powerhouses have been, but rest assured, the fact that they have a chance to do it is not a fluke.

LEAGUE: Horizon League

COACH: Darrin Horn

RECORD: 23-9, 13-5

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  • NET: 152
  • KENPOM: 143
  • TORVIK: 179

PROJECTED SEED: Northern Kentucky finished second in the Horizon League title race. They don’t have any wins over a team in the top 100 on KenPom. They lost to Detroit and Texas Southern. They are not going to be a very high seed, and may end up on the No. 16 seed line, depending on how some things play out.

WHO DID THEY BEAT?: No one, really. Northern Kentucky has a road win over Ball State, who ranks 112th in the NET. It’s their only win over someone that ranks in the top 185 in the NET. They did hang with Arkansas on the road, however, losing by just six points.


The style that they want to play makes them difficult to match up with when it works. They have five guys that want to shoot on the floor, their bigs can play-make and they have four guys that average between 12 and 16.5 points. They are not the easiest team in the world to prepare for if you have bigs that don’t want to leave the lane.


The problem is that those shooters can’t really shoot. Jaylon Tate is 8-for-42 from three on the season. Tyler Sharpe shooting 33.8 percent. Dantez Walton shoots 36.9 percent. No one else that’s taken more than 15 threes shoots better than 29.9 percent from distance, yet more than 45 percent of their field goal attempts come from beyond the arc. That is not ideal.


This program is as new as it gets to the Division I ranks, but they are already a mainstay in the NCAA tournament. They have been in three of the four years that they were actually eligible to dance, and they made it back this season despite the fact that they underwent a coaching change; Darrin Horn replaced John Brannen, who left to take over Cincinnati.


I have a hard time seeing how the Norse upset anyone in March. This is a team that is built on their defense and the fact that they space the floor and shoot threes. But they rank 300th nationally in three-point shooting, 324th in defensive rebounding percentage and their only starter over 6-foot-6 played a total of just five minutes in the Horizon tournament.