Eyes wide open for NKU in Year Two

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – So you want to play big-time college basketball?

Northern Kentucky University does. And is. The Norse isn’t doing it sheepishly, either. NKU opens its second season of Division I men’s basketball play Friday night at Purdue and then heads down I-75 to Lexington on Sunday afternoon for a 4 p.m. tip-off at Rupp Arena against national preseason No. 1-ranked Kentucky.

Dorothy, we’re not in Division II anymore.

The Norse will go into their schedule with just one player returning who averaged more than 15 minutes of playing time across the entire 2012-13 season. It has no senior after guard Chad Jackson decided to red-shirt this year, and only one junior in transfer Jordan Jackson.

Division I play is daunting enough. It’s even more daunting with nothing but freshmen and sophomores. There are no delusions of grandeur at NKU but there is a big picture.

“I wanted to come in and be one of the foundation pieces that builds the program up to where it can eventually be a contender to get into the tournament one day,” said freshman Cole Murray, a 6-foot-7 guard from Delphi, Ind., which is about 15 minutes from the Purdue campus. “It all builds up for a big senior year, so hopefully my senior year we can find our way into the tournament.”

NKU was a top tier Division II program. It played in one of the country’s best leagues – the Great Lakes Valley Conference – and earned 13 NCAA tournaments berths, including twice reaching the national championship game. There had always been talk about the school going DI but for the most part that’s all it was – talk. Until it wasn’t.

NKU made the announcement that it was moving all of its athletic programs to Division I on Dec. 8, 2011 and would be joining the Atlantic Sun.

This is Year Two of the NCAA-mandated four-year transitional period. NKU teams – with the exception of golf, cross country and track and field – can compete for regular season championships in the A-Sun but have to wait out transitional period before being eligible for conference and NCAA-sponsored postseason play.

That’s a tough period. There’s excitement about the move. There’s also the reality of what is often an enticement for players, things like winning league titles and playing in the spotlight of the NCAA tournament in March, isn’t available to you for four years.

“That’s going to be very difficult if you get into the middle of the season and you’re finding wins difficult,” said NKU coach Dave Bezold, now in his 10th season as head coach and 24th overall in the program. “You’re asking yourself: what are we playing for? I think that we’re really going to have to watch that as a program, as a coaching staff, because we’ve always had that carrot out in front of us.”

The Norse lost its first six games last season, three of them by six points or less, but went 11-10 the rest of the way, including a 9-9 finish in the A-Sun. It beat regular season champion Mercer by 17 points at home. You remember Florida Gulf Coast? Last year’s NCAA tournament buzz team that picked up the nickname Slam City for its high-octane style of play that resulted in a trip to the Sweet 16 after wins against Georgetown and San Diego State? The Norse lost to FGCU by just seven points in a February game.

That team had older players, guys who had been through the rigors of regular seasons and postseasons. It doesn’t matter what level you play, those experiences matter.

“The experience is something this team is going to get right out of the gate,” said Bezold. “They’re all going to play a lot of minutes. We don’t have a top six or seven that you want to go into every year knowing.”

Sophomore forward Jalen Billups was selected as preseason first-team A-Sun by the publication College Sports Madness even though he played in just seven games last season due to a medical condition. He was cleared to return to practice late last month. Billups, from Cincinnati’s Shroder High School, 10.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in his short stint last season, including garnering NKU’s first Division I double-double in the program’s first Division I win. He scored 14 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in a 54-52 victory at Hampton last December.

“I’ve been anxiously waiting. I’m ready for the season to start,” said Billups. “Just based on how I carry myself, I’m not going to ease into it. I’ll go hard right away. I’ve been practicing for two weeks now and just played in the scrimmage this past weekend (at Youngstown State). I can’t really take time off. I’ve got to go right away because we’re depending on me a lot for leadership. I’m one of the returners. I can’t ease into it.”

With Purdue and Kentucky on the opening weekend of the season, there will be no easing into anything for NKU. The Norse will also play at North Carolina in December before getting into conference play.

This is a program that is used to success. Making the move to Division I might mean altering one’s definition of the term but only for a short time. Bezold and his players can see a day when the on-campus Bank of Kentucky Center is routinely filled to its 9,400-person capacity.

“That’s what you go to bed every night dreaming about, the ability to fill this arena up. We see it on TV, the excitement that teams can have on the campus and the alumni,” said Bezold. “That’s what you want to bring to your campus. That’s what we want to bring here. That’s what we want to build.”