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The Morning Dish – Wednesday, March 8, 2017

March 8, 2017 Columns No Comments

Where would the Horizon League be at this moment without Northern Kentucky?

And who ever thought such a question would be asked two years ago?

It’s been a rough couple years for the Horizon, and in some ways Tuesday was more of the same. But on a day when two more of its coaches departed and it faced the good news/bad news prospect of its 10th-place team winning the conference tournament, it was the league’s newest member-an addition that barely made a ripple when it happened a few years ago-that made the biggest headlines.

In its first year of eligibility for the NCAA Division I Tournament, Northern Kentucky is headed to the Big Dance. A school that was Division II five years ago, mid-pack in the Atlantic Sun two years back and eighth in the Horizon just last year actually was the league tourney favorite by the semifinals this year and finally ended the Cinderella run of Wisconsin-Milwaukee 59-53 Tuesday night.

The Norse-that’s what they’re called-were the only Horizon team to win a game as a higher seed in this year’s bizarre tournament, where the No. 4, 6, 9 and 10 teams made the semifinals. The title caps an incredible rise for a team that was picked for last in the league in its first year in 2015-16 and was considered more of a long-term project than short-term impact. It also stopped Milwaukee from making the NCAA Tournament with what would’ve been a 12-23 record, which would’ve been one of the ultimate underdog stories in tourney history.

Northern Kentucky was 9-21 a year ago in its first Horizon campaign, yet has been one of the turnaround stories of this season with a 15-win improvement. The Norse started 9-3, had some struggles in league play, but have finished with a flourish and enter the NCAAs having won 10 of their last 11 games.

Northern Kentucky was a surprising addition to the Horizon League in 2015, and it’s a school that even by its name sounds like an awkward fit for the league. Kentucky sounds far more Atlantic Sun or OVC than the decidedly Midwestern Horizon, but NKU is a better fit geographically (it’s in a suburb of Cincinnati) and competitively than anyone would’ve known or expected.

And boy, does the league need it. Two more of its coaches left Tuesday, with Youngstown State’s Jerry Slocum retiring after a career of running high-octane offenses and Gary Waters and Cleveland State parting ways. The case of Waters in particular is one of the more frustrating ones in college basketball, as his tenure unquestionably was shortened by transfer waivers and graduate transfer rules that sapped a program once primed to be a league favorite.

With those two out, that makes for no less than nine Horizon members who have changed coaches in the last two years. The turnover has been so much that NKU’s John Brannen, Illinois-Chicago’s Steve McClain and Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Linc Darner are elder statemen, each just finishing up their second years.

With Valparaiso’s NCAA Tournament snub last year, the seemingly endless coaching changes and equally never-ending endless debates over its conference tournament format, the Horizon has been in need of some good news. As it turns out, Northern Kentucky has come along at just the right time.

Side Dishes:

  • Gonzaga should’ve locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after handling Saint Mary’s for the third time this year, pulling away late for a 74-56 win in the West Coast Conference final. The Bulldogs built a big halftime lead, then saw the Gaels climb back within seven before stretching it out at the end and completing a sweep of SMC.
  • The Summit League goes to South Dakota State-again. The Jackrabbits kept their and North Dakota State’s stranglehold on the league going with an exciting 79-77 win over Nebraska-Omaha. Make that six straight years of SDSU/NDSU winning it, and this is South Dakota State’s fourth NCAA trip in six years. Mike Daum was terrific again with 37 points and 12 rebounds, and SDSU certainly is going to make some team nervous in the NCAAs with him and with its postseason experience.
  • Mount St. Mary’s rallied in the second half to top St. Francis (Pa.) 71-61 in the Northeast Conference final. In theory, the Mountaineers should absolutely avoid a play-in game in the NCAAs and maybe even deserves a 15 seed after playing a non-conference schedule that included six top-50 opponents on the road. In reality, we know the committee’s cares about non-conference strength of schedule typically disappear by the time they get to the end of the bracket, and the Mount just might be headed to Dayton.
  • The ACC Tournament opened with few surprises with the slight exception of Pittsburgh edging Georgia Tech 61-59. The Yellow Jackets have had a very nice season-and that can’t be said enough-but are almost certainly headed to the NIT.
  • The SWAC quarterfinals featured plenty of drama, with three of four games decided by six points or less. No. 2 Alcorn State nipped 7 seed Mississippi Valley State 63-60, No. 3 Southern edged sixth-seeded Jackson State 69-63 and 5 seed Grambling State is in the semis after an 81-77 win over No. 4 Prairie View A&M. Only top seed Texas Southern got by relatively easily, topping 8 seed Alabama State 87-72.
  • Deep into the night, the Big Sky Tournament featured a triple-overtime thriller, with No. 11 seed Southern Utah-with a 5-26 record coming in-surprising 6 seed Montana State 109-105 behind 43 points from Randy Onwuasor. That marked a career-high and tournament record for Onwuasor, and it’s the Thunderbirds’ first-ever win in the Big Sky tourney.
  • Another coaching change from Tuesday is at Quinnipiac, where Tom Moore was let go after 10 years. You want to know why coaches make the big bucks in this sport? This is why. Moore built a respectable program to the point where it was a perennial contender in the NEC, which eventually positioned it for a move to the MAAC. He had a tough last couple years, including a 10-21 mark this season. A stark change in philosophy defensively and offensively resulted in a team that scored more points this year but wasn’t nearly as strong on the glass as it was in recent years, when the Bobcats were perennially among the nation’s leaders rebounding. Still, Moore recruited maybe the MAAC’s two best freshmen this year in Mikey Dixon and Peter Kiss, yet now does not get the chance to coach them. Unfortunate for Moore, and unfortunate for the players.
  • Conference honors continue to be announced. Among them yesterday was the Atlantic 10, where Richmond’s T.J. Cline was named player of the year, and the WAC, where New Mexico State’s Ian Baker received top honors.

Today’s Menu:

  • One more NCAA bid is on the line, this in the Patriot League where Lehigh is at Bucknell (7:30 p.m. Eastern, CBSSN). This should be terrific. Both teams have had some time now since their last NCAA bids (Lehigh: 2012, Bucknell: 2013), and this is the last chance for Lehigh star Tim Kempton.
  • The ACC tourney continues with some good second-round games. Miami takes on Syracuse early in the day (Noon, ESPN), Clemson goes up against Duke (2:30 p.m., ESPN) and Wake Forest faces Virginia Tech for the second time in less than a week (7 p.m., ESPN2).
  • The MEAC Tournament in Norfolk, Va., also rolls on with the top two seeds in action. No. 1 North Carolina Central faces ninth-seeded Bethune-Cookman after the Wildcats defeated Delaware State 69-62 on Tuesday, and No. 2 Norfolk State faced No. 7 South Carolina State after the Bulldogs’ 82-78 overtime win over Florida A&M last night.
  • All kinds of tournaments get started, including the Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA, Mountain West, SEC, Southland and Sun Belt. Among the most notable games: Xavier can’t afford a loss to DePaul in the Big East (9:30 p.m., FS1), and the same goes for USC against Washington in the Pac-12. Also: UAB is the seventh seed in Conference USA but is hosting the tourney. The Blazers will need to win four games in four days, though, starting with 10th-seeded UNC Charlotte.

Have a superb Wednesday.

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