Norse men’s basketball will start a four-game home-and-home series with the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, beginning in the 2018-19 season.
“Playing against UC pits NKU against one of the most storied men’s basketball programs in the nation,” NKU assistant athletic director Brian McEldowney said. “It helps showcase the sensational basketball played in the Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky region.”
While the Bearcats’ Fifth Third Arena underwent an $87 million renovation, UC played their 2017-18 homes games at NKU’s BB&T Arena.
As part of the terms to use the 10,000-seat Highland Heights facility, UC agreed to play the Norse in a four-game series, two of which will be hosted by NKU, over the next seven years.
“Getting a major basketball program like Cincinnati to play at BB&T Arena is a big challenge,” McEldowney said. “While we always explore potential opportunities to host major programs, the current reality is it just won’t happen that often.”
McEldowney said the university has worked diligently over the past few years to schedule several known, non-conference programs such as Xavier, West Virginia, Michigan, Illinois, Texas A&M and Memphis to enhance the program’s visibility.
In addition to the Bearcats (with dates yet to be determined) as well as the Horizon League this season, the Norse will play last year’s NCAA tournament darlings: the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Miami (Ohio), Eastern Kentucky, Northern Illinois. NKU will also host a multi-team tournament on Nov. 16-18 at BB&T Arena, part of their non-conference schedule.
The three-day tournament will feature mid-major programs such as UNC Asheville, Coastal Carolina and Manhattan. All three teams have played in the NCAA tournament in the past four seasons and are no strangers to success. A full schedule for the upcoming season is expected to be released by the end of the summer.
“Competing against any major program similar to Cincinnati’s caliber provides an opportunity to showcase our program and the University on a grander scale,” McEldowney said.
Having last met on Nov. 27, 1988 at the now defunct Cincinnati Gardens, the Norse are 0-7 all-time against the Bearcats’ in the regular season.
But that was a different time. Since moving into Division I play, the Norse has emerged as one of the top programs in the Horizon League, boasting back-to-back 20 win seasons. Including earning a spot in the 2017 NCAA tournament in their first year of eligibility, followed by an NIT bid in 2018.
NKU also ranks among the nation’s best in growth at men’s basketball games, according to a recent statistical analysis of attendance released by the NCAA .
“Northern Kentucky has always had a passionate fan base,” said McEldowney. “Combining loyal, passionate fans, with a successful program and renewed emphasis on the fan experience, allowed us to rapidly climb into the top-third in the nation in attendance.”
NKU’s program record of 4,135 attendants per game last season ranked 119th nationally out of the 351-member NCAA Division I rankings.
“Several years ago, our leadership made strategic decisions aimed at bolstering attendance at our games,” McEldowney said.
The Norse was one of 18 programs to see a positive change (1,311) in attendance over a 1,000 fans year-over-year. An improvement that ranked them 12th-highest in the country.
“Navigating the transition to NCAA Division I membership has its challenges, but when you have that kind of pedigree and the proper individuals are in the right roles, success can matriculate quickly,” McEldowney said.
The Norse also ranks amongst the nations top collegiate powerhouses in average growth per season, based on actual attendance numbers as well. Since the 2014-15 season, Norse nation has more than doubled. It’s grown by 2,119 fans, and ranks above West Virginia (2,114), Miami (2,006), Maryland (1,980), Virginia Tech (1,934) and Florida State (1,809).
Student attendance has also shown similar growth since the 2014-15 season as well, doubling from 300 to 621 last season.
“We have several student fans who are extremely engaged and wear the Black & Gold with pride,” McEldowney said. “They are excellent when it comes to supporting the program and encouraging others to do so as well.”
McEldowney also said that they have received “tremendous support” from an assortment of student organizations and other campus offices, each of which have been responsive to their promotions and answered the call to be more engaged.
“Not only has Coach Brannen established a culture of success in the program at the DI level (24-4 at home), but the team also plays an exciting brand of basketball,” McEldowney said.