NKU men draw Houston in Midwest Region

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Ally Bodde thinks Northern Kentucky University men’s basketball team will win four games and reach the Final Four.

“’Cause they’re good,” the 11-year-old Hebron girl said Sunday of the 16-seed Norse, who take on top-seed Houston in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Men’s Division I tournament Thursday at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama. (Tip time is approximately 9:20 p.m. EDT.)

About 200 people attended the watch party for Selection Sunday at Truist Arena. NKU junior Logan Hatfield of Cold Spring would have liked to see the Norse play Kansas, the top seed in the West, but he wasn’t complaining.

“They’ve been playing pretty good,” Hatfield said. “They showed out in the (Horizon League) tournament.”

NKU (22-12) is in the 68-team field for the fourth time since 2017. The Norse lost to Kentucky in 2017 and Texas Tech in 2019 (The Norse won the Horizon League in 2020, which would’ve been head coach Darrin Horn’s first trip with the team, but the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the tournament.)

“It was like that dream finally came true,” junior guard Marques Warrick said. “I grew up a big college basketball fan; I don’t know how many Selection Shows I watched on Sundays … This is one of my dreams; it finally turned into reality.”

Horn said he didn’t know a lot about Houston, but he had immense respect for Cougars head coach Kelvin Sampson. He said both teams play physical defense.

“I think from that standpoint you’ll see two teams that kind of hang their hat on the defensive end,” Horn said.

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Houston (31-3) faced major adversity last week. 

According to an ESPN story, Sampson’s twin sister, Karen, died Friday. The next day, leading scorer Marcus Sasser suffered a groin injury in an American Athletic Conference tournament semifinal win over Cincinnati.

Sasser did not play in the Cougars’ 75-65 loss to Memphis in Sunday’s AAC final. Horn said Sasser’s presence or absence does not affect how his team prepares for the Cougars.

NKU’s roster includes eight from Kentucky, including the top three scorers – Warrick (19.1 points a game) of Henry Clay out of Lexington, Highlands alumnus Sam Vinson (11.7) and Trevon Faulkner of Mercer County out of Harrodsburg (8.6).

“I’m really happy, especially for Trevon Faulkner, who was on that (2020) team and got a tournament appearance taken away from him,” Horn said. “He came back in large part because he wanted to play in the NCAA tournament, and specifically with these teammates.” 

For Vinson, leaving a legacy is a large reason he came to NKU.

“It’s definitely part of it,” Vinson said. “When we look at the older guys who went through this program and won games, when you win you leave a legacy.

“… I decided to come here to win more Horizon League championships. To finally get that done in my second year and to go on to the Big Dance, that’s what I envisioned in myself.”

The way Warrick saw it Sunday, all the pressure’s on Houston.

“It should be,” Warrick said. “Always, every year, the No. 1 seed should get a win. That’s why the pressure’s on them. It’s not really on us because nobody picks us to win.”

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