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NKU men get NCAA top-seed Houston Thursday in Birmingham, Ala., and they could not be more thrilled

By Dan Weber
NKyTribune sports reporter

The response was sheer exhilaration.

“It’s not officially official until you see your name called,” NKU Coach Darrin Horn said at the end of Sunday’s NCAA Viewing Party at Truist Arena.

NKU vet Trevon Faulkner is the only Norse with NCAA tournament experience. (Photo by Dan Weber/NKyTribune)

And no, it wasn’t the team with the No. 1 in front of its name – top seed Houston’s Cougars – that the NKU players and fans were focused on. They didn’t care who they were going to play.

It was the fact that they were, indeed, going to play.

After the 2020 tourney was called for COVID, wiping out NKU’s bid that year, and after last year’s second-half championship game collapse against Wright State when the Norse could all but see the tourney ticket in their hands before losing it, they were finally getting what they’d worked so hard for.

“It’s like our dreams finally came true, finally came to reality,” NKU’s leading scorer Marques Warrick, out of Lexington Henry Clay, said. “Seeing our name pop up, it’s like all our hard work paid off.”

“All that work in the offseason,” said Sam Vinson, Fort Thomas’ favorite basketball player, “all that work . . . , all that work . . . an awesome feeling . . . a dream come true.”

That’s a piece of net in Sam Vinson’s cap that he cut down after winning the Horizon League tournament.

“It’s the reason why I came back,” said fifth-year grad student Trevon Faulkner. “Being a kid from the small town of Harrodsburg, Ky., to have them watch me on the big stage . . . it’s a dream I had growing up.”

For the man his teammates call “Gramps,” it’s a replay. He’s the only NKU player who has ever gotten to the tournament the year the Norse lost to Sweet 16 team Texas Tech in Tulsa.

Not so for Horn, who noted that this was his 30th NCAA anniversary of his first appearance as a player for Western Kentucky out of Lexington Tates Creek High School.

There’s also a theme here that Lexington Herald-Leader sports columnist Mark Story noted this week. NKU is a Kentucky team – the lone Kentucky team – in the NCAA tournament with a coach from Kentucky coach and players from Kentucky.

“That’s an awesome feeling,” Vinson said of the four Kentucky guys leading the Norse to the NCAA, “me and Trevon, Quse and Coach.”

“It’s all good,” Faulkner said with a grin about the amount of attention that other Kentucky team gets. His dad was a Louisville fan, he said, although his grandmother rooted for the Wildcats.

“Kentucky basketball is always going to be there,” Vinson said, and the crowd of 300 or so gave the Wildcats a smattering of applause when they were announced. But nothing like they did for the Norse.

NKU leading scorer Marques Warrick will be playing in his first NCAA tournament.

“It’s a ton of national exposure for our school,” Horn said. “We don’t take that lightly. This is one of the few ways you can do that.”

And in one of those small-world coincidences that seem to happen in sports, the indispensable Norseman, 6-foot-8 senior Chris Brandon, without whose rebounding and defense a smallish NKU would not be here, will get the chance to go against his hometown Cougars.

“I don’t know if that’s something that’s important to him or not,” Horn said. “If it is, that’s a bonus. We need him to be playing at his best the way he has been. I think he can play at that level.”

He’ll have to against a 31-3 Houston team built on much the same principles as NKU – defense and aggressiveness. But with great length although with an injured starter – senior guard Marcus Sasser who missed Sunday’s 75-65 loss to Memphis with a groin injury.

NKU Coach Darrin faces the media after learning his Norse will face top-seeded Houston Thursday in Birmingham.

If Northern has any advantage going into this game, it’s the way the CBS experts talked of where the danger was for Houston in this draw – the second round against either Iowa or Auburn. No mention of NKU.

If NKU was a true No. 16 seed, they’d be right. Ditto if it plays like it did in December losing to three mediocre teams outside the Horizon League in a Florida tourney.

But if the Norse play the way they did against Youngstown State and Cleveland State this week – or a Cincinnati team from Houston’s American Athletic Conference back in December – then it could be an altogether different story.

Houston beat Cincinnati three times this season, by an average 13 points a game, which is the exact same margin NKU beat UC this season, 64-51.

Despite that, “Not a lot of people know who we are,” Faulkner said of the 22-12 Norse.

“They’re a No. 1 seed for a reason,” Horn said, no matter the status of starter Sasser. “There’s no pressure on us.”

And there are those similarities, Horn said. As to the 1-vs.-16 matchup, “I’m not going to talk about that. If you don’t play your best, all that other stuff doesn’t matter. You can come in with the biggest chip on your shoulder” and if you play badly, that means nothing.

No joke there. The record of 16th-seeded teams against No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament is 1-135. That’s right, only once in 136 matchups of 1-16 seeds has the upset happened. That’s less than 0.74 percent. So better not to talk about it. If you do it, everybody will be talking about it.

So will the focus for NKU be on NKU “enjoying the moment?” Horn was asked.

We’re going to Birmingham and playing Houston, the NKU Norse applaud the news.

“That’s kind of the theme for the entire week,” he said. “Stay in the moment. It helps you play in the moment.”

That moment for Vinson in Year 2 at NKU is starting to happen for the player who took his Highlands Bluebirds to a state title two years ago before staying home at NKU.

“When you win, you leave a legacy,” Vinson said, “I think I’m starting to leave my legacy.”

But that’s not what he’ll be thinking Thursday as he sets foot on the court at Birmingham’s Legacy Arena for a game scheduled to start right around 9:20 p.m. “I just want to take it all in,” Vinson said, “to look around the arena.”

As for Horn, the best thing about playing in Birmingham is the obvious one: “The site is within driving distance,” Horn told the crowd, “I expect to see all of you there.”

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