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Hoops Preview: Northern Kentucky won’t be intimidated

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Missouri has more talent, but the Norse are heavy on veterans and no stranger to a big stage.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Northern Kentucky vs Texas Tech Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Teams like Northern Kentucky are simultaneously the best and worst part about college basketball.

For those of us who take particular joy in the madness of March, NKU-adjacent squads are what make life fun. Every once in a while you’ll encounter a Damian Lilliard at Oakland or a Steph Curry at Davidson. But most of the Cinderella-types look a lot like Darrin Horn’s team: heavy on seniors with a few impact underclassmen and at least one or two impact transfers.

However, if you’re a fan of a team like Missouri, schools like NKU can be downright infuriating. They’re pesky, often led by nothing-to-lose upperclassmen and can turn any night into a bad one with just the right amount of luck and spunk. A Power Five team may beat a mid-major like this nine out of 10 times, but you never know when that one time might occur.

Still, it’s not as if Northern Kentucky has ever fit the mold of March underdog perfectly. The Norse have only found themselves in the big dance twice since joining Division I in 2013. Granted, that’s still pretty impressive. There’s only one dependable way to make it to March as a mid-major — winning your conference tournament — and NKU has been able to do so twice. In 2017, they were able to keep a game against No. 4 seeded Kentucky in the single digits. Last season, they fell by 15 to eventual runner-up Texas Tech.

While last year’s team lost their overall best player in Drew McDonald, Darrin Horn enters year one at his new gig with most of the Horizon League Tournament champion roster intact. Without knowing too much about that league, it’s not unreasonable to think Missouri could be facing the first of many NCAA Tournament teams on Friday.


The Scout

Starters

Position Missouri (1-0) Northern Kentucky (1-0)
Position Missouri (1-0) Northern Kentucky (1-0)
PG Dru Smith (Rs. Jr., 6'3", 203) Tyler Sharpe (Sr., 6'0" 200)
CG Mark Smith (Jr., 6'5", 220) Trevon Faulkner (So., 6'3", 195)
WING Javon Pickett (So., 6'5", 220) Jalen Tate (Rs. Jr., 6'6", 170)
PF Kobe Brown (Fr., 6'7", 240) Dantez Walton (Sr. 6'6", 215)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Jr., 6'10", 260) Silas Adheke (Rs. Jr., 6'8", 245)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

Missouri will once again have a size advantage (at least at the outset), but don’t expect the Norse roster to be overwhelmed.

Six of the twelve players that saw playing time in NKU’s opening win over Cincinnati Clermont were juniors and seniors. They’re led by senior point guard Tyler Sharpe, a former Louisville walk-on who decided to try his wares in the Horizon League. Things have worked out pretty well for Sharpe, as he was named to the conference’s all-tournament team and averaged nearly 15 points a game in his junior season. He also earned a full-ride scholarship. Not a bad year!

The Norse aren’t one-dimensional, though. Dantez Walton and Jalen Tate are nearly as dangerous and led returning players in most statistical categories. Tate especially is smooth on both ends of the court, averaging nearly as many steals as Sharpe while tacking on more blocks, a higher assist rate and better two and three point percentages.

Sophomores Trevon Faulkner and Bryson Langdon also flexed their muscles in the opener, combining to score 34 points on 5-10 from beyond the arc (all makes by Langdon) while adding 14 rebounds. Graduate transfer Karl Harris also logged 14 points, eight rebounds and three steals in the team’s opener. Unlike Incarnate Word, Northern Kentucky won’t lack for players when Missouri goes deep into its rotation.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Northern Kentucky Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 107 (127) 19.2 (332) 50.5 (181) 21 (318) 31.9 (61) 29.8 (267) 36.3 (78) 47.6 (267) 70.3 (184) 11.3 (307) 9.1 (204)
Northern Kentucky 102.3 (130) 18 (296) 49.1 (106) 18.4 (173) 26 (78) 35.2 (236) 32 (49) 49.9 (164) 75.2 (278) 11.1 (92) 8.5 (214)

Much like the other night, Missouri should be able to use its size to an advantage.

The Tigers were able to bully their way to a 9.7 expected rebound margin on Wednesday night and, while NKU’s veteran IQ will likely account for some of that, the Tigers are still in good shape against a team that is outsized. The Norse front line isn’t small, but Missouri’s big guards — specifically Mark Smith and Javon Pickett — were able to take away some boards from other, taller men. Tilmon should be able to close in on 10 like he did against Incarnate Word, but be wary of whistles — Northern Kentucky’s veterans will likely look to get into Tilmon’s head early and often. Their 26 offensive rebound percentage was fine, but Missouri’s was a bit more stout.

Despite their decent OR%, 3P% and Blk%, NKU doesn’t seem like too much of a defensive threat. They won’t turn you over all that often, and are prone to giving possessions away by fouling. If Missouri is able to continue their assault on the rim, they’ll be in line to get quite a few free throws.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Getting the three-point rhythm

Despite its 40-point rout, Missouri only shot 22.6 percent from beyond the arc against Incarnate Word. Based on what we know about Missouri’s shooters, that number is bound to go up — their two best shooters combined to go 2-11 from deep. However, Northern Kentucky does defend the three well.

If the Tigers can find their stroke early, it’ll be beneficial in keeping Northern Kentucky at an arm’s length. There were promising indications on Wednesday that the Tigers will be more willing to drive to the rim moving forward, but they’ll need to recover their shooting stroke at some point. Now’s as good a time as any.

When Northern Kentucky has the ball...

Northern Kentucky Offense vs. Missouri Defense (‘18-’19)

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Northern Kentucky 109.4 (76) 16.8 (82) 54.6 (28) 17.8 (130) 30.6 (99) 34.8 (125) 36 (91) 55 (27) 67.1 (303) 11.6 (323) 8.5 (132)
Missouri 97.2 (51) 17.5 (196) 49.4 (115) 18.1 (193) 25.7 (65) 38 (296) 31.9 (45) 50.5 (196) 71.7 (238) 5.2 (336) 7 (319)

Unlike many teams in this modern basketball age, the Norse appear to get their efficiency by moving toward the basket and not away from it. That doesn’t mean things won’t change, though.

In their season opening victory, the Norse chucked 36 threes, accounting for 49 percent of their shots. That’s a tick up from last year, when NKU’s long-range shooting accounted for 41 percent of their total shots. We’re only looking at one game’s worth of data, but the decision to commit to the long ball is notable in a game where the Norse could’ve dominated down low and gone home.

Another interesting wrinkle to the Norse offense is poor free throw shooting. Usually veteran-laden teams are better in this area, but NKU only shot 67.1 percent from the line last year. That number didn’t get any better against Cincinnati Clermont — the Norse went 17-32 from the line. This should give Missouri a bit of a cushion should they get into foul trouble

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Missouri
Another big defensive night from Jeremiah Tilmon would be a boon to stopping NKU’s high-percentage looks.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Protecting the rim

Despite Northern Kentucky’s long-range attack against Cincinnati Clermont, the team still makes its bones from within the arc. In 2018-2019, almost 49 percent of the team’s points came from two-point range, and their 27th ranked two-point percentage suggests a lot of that came on easy looks. If Tilmon is able to guard the rim like he did against Incarnate Word, the Tigers can force the Norse out wide, where they’ll need all of their shooters (Sharpe, Tate and Bryson Langdon) to have good nights to come away with an upset.


KenPom predicts...

Missouri 76, Northern Kentucky 63 | Thirteen points may feel a little close for comfort, but it feels right in this case. NKU is a big step up from Incarnate Word and, as Sam and Matt said on the first Dive Cuts of the season, should be a good opportunity for fans to gauge where this Missouri team is headed. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Norse keep this close into the second half, but the talent deficiency should win out in the end, especially if the Tigers can knock down some of the open shots they missed on Wednesday.