Bluegrass Battle: NKU took a road to basketball success

Bluegrass Battle: NKU took a road to basketball success (WKRC)

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (WKRC) - For Division I basketball teams, getting an invitation to the "Big Dance" is always one of the major goals when the season begins.

For Northern Kentucky University, this was the prom it was never quite grown-up enough to attend. But in its first year of eligibility, the little kid from Highland Heights grew up in a hurry.

In the Bluegrass State, Kentucky basketball is life. Blue blood runs deep south of the Ohio River, or red runneth over. On March 7, the Norse invaded and kicked down the door that only seven teams in history have done before them. It was not usual for a team to go to the NCAA tournament in its first year, only two have done it since 1970 so it was not something that normally happens.

NKU has a history of not normal. John Brannen is only in his second year as head coach. Dave Bezold, who recruited several of Brannen's stars, didn't make it long enough to see a Division I invitation, and he replaced the legend. Coach Ken Shields has spent a lifetime in Northern Kentucky-- 24 years as a high school coach, 16 at NKU, built from the ground up.

Shannon Minor, former NKU player/North College Hill coach, said, "We were in a high school gym. At first it wasn't very exciting without crowds but then we gelled together and Coach Shields did a good job of recruiting and we started to win."

The program was twice on the doorstep of a national title. NKU elevated in 96-97 as national runner up in Division II and then elevated again. It was an exciting time for everyone in Northern Kentucky. Two national basketball titles for the women in 2000 and 2008, one in men's soccer in 2010 each created buzz. But when the 10, 000 seat BB&T arena was completed in 2008 for $64 million, the DI volume turned up.

Patrick Moynahan, retired NKU provost, said, "I remember, 'President, we need to bring our athletic department up to our academic department because our academic depart is already Division I.'"

So the Division I transition began in 2012, spending the first three seasons in the Atlantic Sun Conference before accepting a bid to the Horizon League, and waiting until 2017 to become eligible for postseason play. They really are Cinderella.

People can catch the Bluegrass Battle as NKU takes on Kentucky. Tip-off time Friday night, March 17, is 9:40 p.m. on Local 12.

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