Men’s basketball hopes ‘toughness’ defines team


Matt Sexton

John Brannen prepares for his first season as NKU men’s basketball coach.

If NKU’s new men’s basketball coach has his way, BB&T Arena will be a very uncomfortable place for opponents during the upcoming season.

John Brannen has been on the job for seven months, and he has made his objectives for his program perfectly clear.

“NKU basketball will be a program that establishes toughness,” Brannen said. “We’ll be a tough basketball team. I hope that shows itself sooner than later, but it will over a period of time. This will be a program that’s an exciting brand of basketball to watch.”

Toughness that is forged in practice will be unleashed on the Norse’s opponents, if Brannen gets his wish.

“It will be a program that’s developed around a style of play, which is up-and-down,” Brannen said. “We’ve termed it, ’94 feet both ways.’ We’re still building that. That’s what this program will look like as time goes on.”

Five seniors return for Northern Kentucky, led by Jalen Billups and Tyler White.

Billups made 69.6 percent of field-goal attempts last season, which was best in the nation. He averaged 11.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last season, leading the Norse in both categories.

“I’m really excited about this team,” Billups said. “There’s something different about this team. We’re really close. Off the court, we’re always together. Everybody wants to do whatever it takes to win.”

Practices have been quite different under Brannen, according to Billups.

“I would describe it as very intense,” Billups said. “Every day, he brings it. There’s constant movement. It’s really exhausting, but it’s good for us. It’s a different style of play, so there is more conditioning, more skill development.”

Billups and White are both in the top 50 in career scoring at NKU. Billups sits 39th with 819 points, while White is 44th with 753.

White averaged 10.2 points per game last season.

In addition, Jared Bryant, Jake Giesler and Todd Johnson return as seniors on this year’s team.

Brannen made it clear that while he has long-term goals in building the program, he owed it to this year’s seniors to give them a chance to win.

“What I’ve been most excited about, about this group of young men, we’ve got five seniors,” Brannen said. “I’m here to build a program and we will do that. We will build a program here at Northern Kentucky University that will be sustainable. I also owe it to these five seniors to do everything we can to have success this season.”

Two players transferred into the program. Jeff Garrett joined Brannen in making the move from Alabama to Northern Kentucky. He redshirted last season for the Crimson Tide, and was a three-star prospect coming out of high school in Florida.

Garrett will have to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. He will be eligible in the 2016-17 season.

Lavone Holland II joins the Norse from Coffeyville Community College. They finished 26-6 in 2014-15. Holland had 13.8 points per game.

No surprises for Brannen

Thanks to the offseason practice regulations by the NCAA, Brannen hasn’t been met with many surprises during the first few months as head coach.

“With today’s environment, with the way athletics is, and the accessibility that the NCAA has done a great job giving us in the summer, you don’t have as many surprises,” Brannen said. “I had eight weeks in the summer when I was able to work with them and really get to know them and develop the relationships we needed. You never really know your team until you play outside competition.”

Brannen didn’t seem all that surprised to be picked last in the preseason Horizon League poll. He also didn’t put a lot of stock in that poll.

“We just got in the league,” Brannen said. “I don’t think there is any feel for us and what we do. We’re going to get to know the league as we go. Any coach will tell you, preseason polls are for (the media).”

Billups echoed the sentiments of his coach.

“We don’t pay attention to things like that,” Billups said. “We just know that coach has put us in a position where we can be very effective in this conference and overall.”

Building a reputation for toughness

Brannen made it clear at NKU’s media day that he wants his program to be tough.

“I expect to see a group that competes, night in and night out, regardless of who we play,” Brannen said. “Obviously we switched leagues in the middle of the summer. That’s not going to change our style of play. We want to play up-and-down. We want to be a transition-based offense and defensive team. We want to utilize the entire court offensively and defensively.”

Growing up in northern Kentucky gave Brannen a unique perspective on the community and its people.

“My dad was a small business owner growing up,” Brannen said. “He owned two Goodyear stores. I know what it means to be part of this community. It’s a blue-collar community. It’s tough. This is a community that prides itself on its values and its toughness. We need to do the same with our men’s basketball program.”

Because Brannen knows the area first-hand, he also believes it is important for him to make a personal connection to people in the community.

“I think it’s vital,” Brannen said. “Northern Kentucky University is northern Kentucky’s team. I want the people in northern Kentucky to understand that. I’ve got a tremendous connection with the high school coaches in this area. My brother is a high school coach here in the region. (It’s important) for us to get out and let them know my personality, our team’s personality, and that we care about the people of northern Kentucky.”

No ceiling on expectations

Brannen has expectations on how his team should compete, but hasn’t tied a number of victories on those expectations.

“I wouldn’t put a ceiling on this team, and I haven’t done that in my private conversations with them, I’m certainly not going to do it in this venue,” Brannen said. “I expect a team that’s going to be tough-minded, and play with a style of play that’s going to be fun to watch.”

It is all about building a culture at Northern Kentucky. It is one of the things that has excited Brannen most since joining the program.

“I think the young men have done a great job of buying into the culture,” Brannen said. “As we create that culture, we’ve got a good group of young men with a high care factor. They’re a group of young men that care about this university first and foremost. The other part is they care for each other. Those are probably the areas I’m most excited about since I’ve stepped on campus and took over this men’s basketball program.”

While Brannen could go for a few more preseason practices, his players are ready to get started, which they will do Friday at West Virginia.

“We’re excited to have the opportunity to play against some outside competition,” Brannen said. “We’ve been banging on each other for quite a while. It’s interesting, if you ask the players if they’re ready to play somebody else, they’d say yes. I could do another two or three weeks of practice. That would be perfectly fine with me.”

For Brannen and the players, it is an opportunity to make their mark on the NKU men’s basketball program. Even though this season won’t end in the NCAA tournament, as the Norse are ineligible for one more season, that doesn’t change Brannen’s plan for the program.

“We talk about opportunity with our young men all the time,” Brannen said. “There’s an opportunity for every one of us in this program to really put our handprints and footprints all over it. We can’t go to the NCAA tournament this year. We understand that. That doesn’t change the vision and the direction of this program.”