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Northern Kentucky could present an early season challenge

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Cuonzo Martin isn't afraid to schedule tougher mid-major teams early in the non-conference.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Kentucky at Cincinnati The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODA

With the Missouri Basketball non-conference schedule being released this past week, we’re taking some time to look briefly into each of their opponents. First up was Incarnate Word, who you can catch up on here. Next up is the Tigers’ second opponent in a Friday night matchup on November 8th against the Northern Kentucky Norse.

Northern Kentucky is a public state university located in Highland Heights, Kentucky. Highland Heights is roughly about 10 minutes away from downtown Cincinnati across the Ohio River. The Norse compete in the Horizon League and were the league champions last year. This earned them a 14 seed in the NCAA tournament, their second trip to the tournament in the schools’ seven years as a Division 1 program.

The Norse have been consistent enough the last few years, though the Cincinnati Bearcats hired away their coach, John Brannen, forcing NKU to bring in a new coach this season. Who’d they hire?

Northern Kentucky Norse

Last season: 26-9, 96 in KenPom

Torvik Projection: 159

Head Coach: Darrin Horn

SEC Basketball Tournament - First Round Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Darrin Horn is what you might call a recycled option. The picture above is from when Horn was struggling to get the South Carolina Gamecocks off the ground. Horn is a Kentucky native who played at Western Kentucky in the early 90s. He transitioned to the bench and worked his way up to an assistant position with Marquette before being hired as the head coach at his alma mater.

Horn had solid success at WKU and parlayed that into the head job at SC. Horn was the head coach when SC upset then a undefeated Kentucky team that featured John Wall and Demarcus Cousins. You may remember this game for the heroic performance from Devan Downey, a diminutive point guard who finished with 30 points in the contest. But neither Downey nor anyone else could get Horn and the program over the hump; he finished the season 15-16 and was fired two years later after a 10-win season. He was then hired by Shaka Smart in 2015 at Texas, before being hired by NKU.

RETURNING PLAYERS OF NOTE

The two top players of note are the returning back court of Jalen Tate and Tyler Sharpe. Those two, along with combo forward Dantez Walton, bring back three of the top four scorers. Losing the top interior presence in Drew McDonald and backup scoring guard Zaynah Robinson will hurt, but there’s enough returning to think the Norse could be one of the top teams in the Horizon League again.

Northern Kentucky v Texas Tech Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Sharpe has blossomed the last few years under Brannen. He’s a 39% 3-point shooter with a 59.1% true shooting percentage. He and Tate split some of the primary ball handling skills, but Sharpe is more of the definition of shooting guard, housing 228 threes with a usage rate in the high teens. Tate has better size, at 6’6 vs 6’1, but barely shoots from the outside and yet still has a 58.1% true shooting.

The guard play will be very important for NKU since they don’t have a lot of size coming in, and have virtually zero experience outside of Walton, who stands at around 6’7. There’s 6’8 senior forward Silas Adheke who played 5.0 mpg in 20 games last year, 6’10 sophomore David Wassler who played in a mere 6 games for 9 total minutes, and 6’8 freshman John Harge. The Norse will have a hard time competing on the inside with a Missouri team featuring six players 6’8 or taller.

One of the things I’ve noticed about Cuonzo Martin and his scheduling? He lines up buy games like everyone else, but for the most part, he tries to at least bring in competitive teams and Northern Kentucky fits that bill. There have been fewer Alabama A&Ms and a few more Oral Roberts, Stephen F. Austins, and now Northern Kentuckys. Missouri should still always beat these teams, but they’re far more likely to put up a fight, and I’d expect the second game of the season to be far more competitive than the first.