When you arrive on the campus of Northern Kentucky University, you notice that it doesn't have a lot of personality. There's a reason why; it hasn't been there long enough to develop one. NKU wasn't an independent university until 1968, and has only been on its current site since 1972. Most of the buildings on campus have been built in the past 15 years.
The school in Highland Heights, Kentucky, just minutes from downtown Cincinnati via Interstate 471, is Division I's newest member. The Norse are starting their four-year transition from Division II and the Great Lakes Valley Conference. Although Northern Kentucky had hoped to find a home in either the Horizon League or Ohio Valley Conference, it had to be happy that the Atlantic Sun Conference immediately accepted them as a member, if only to get the conference back to 10 teams after Belmont left for the Ohio Valley.
Northern Kentucky is a bit out of place in the Atlantic Sun, as Lipscomb and East Tennessee State are the only schools within five hours of Highland Heights. The rest of the conference resides in much warmer climes such as South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
The Norse's non-conference schedule would prepare them well for life on the road in the Atlantic Sun. The hammer of the gods have driven the buses, vans and planes of the Norse to new lands, such as San Diego; Lubbock, Texas; Hampton, Virginia; and Annapolis, Maryland. The one place Northern Kentucky hadn't played is at home. The Norse's third conference game in the Atlantic Sun would mark their first Division I home game.
The Bank of Kentucky Center is the home of Norse. Although I have not visited any other facility in the Atlantic Sun, I feel confident in saying that The BoK Center, as some locals call it, is the nicest arena in the conference. Completed in 2008, it holds 9,400 people for basketball, way more than any Division II program would need. But the administration at NKU had the foresight to realize they wanted to build a Division I caliber facility and that there was a market for a mid-sized arena to host concerts and shows that may not have filled the larger U.S. Bank Arena in downtown Cincinnati.
This night would not be the first time I had been at The Bank of Kentucky Center. I had been there once before for a performance of a certain comedian that likes to play with puppets. But it was the first time I had been there for basketball. The ticket prices were quite reasonable. Thirteen dollars got you a ticket on the lower half of the lower level of the sidelines. I opted for the $10 ticket that was in the upper half of the lower level. Seven dollar seats were also available behind the baskets. The tickets were also good for the women's game that started at 4:30 if you chose to arrive early. The staff at the BoK Center didn't bother selling any seats in the upper level, since it was not needed.
Walking up the stairs from the ticket office to the main concourse, one of the first things you notice is an athletics hall of fame and museum. Among the things one can find there are a collection of NCAA trophies earned from NKU's Division II days. With the probationary period, it will be a few years before the Norse can add any more trophies to the case. Until then, this guy is keeping a watchful eye.
On the opposite side of the building, above the area where the students would normally sit, was a collection of inflatable slides and bounce houses for the younger hoop fans to enjoy during lulls in the action. I would never have needed such distractions when I attended sporting events as a child, but games didn't have 20 timeouts in two hours back then either.
Once I got to my seat, I noticed two things. First, the entire seat was fabric covered and padded; very posh, indeed. All of the seats in the lower level, except for the student section seats that roll back, were similar in luxury. The second was a nice added touch, the seats had the school logo embroidered on the seat back!
Unfortunately, only 2.788 people sat in these ultra-comfortable seats. Northern Kentucky will face a hard battle to get attention in a media market dominated by Cincinnati, Xavier, Kentucky and Ohio State. Attendance wasn't helped by the fact that it was scheduled opposite of the hometown Bengals latest playoff failure. Tonight's opponent was USC-Upstate, featuring the star player of The Hopping Cats, Torrey Craig.
Northern Kentucky, like most programs with video boards in their arenas, had a "fire up" video that was played prior to the starting lineup being announced. I was hopeful that the song accompanying the video would be Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song
," a song whose lyrics are totally fitting of a team with a Norse/Viking mascot. Instead, the song was Kanye's and Jay-Z's song about black people in Paris. The video was kind of funny, since it had absolutely zero game footage in it, just a bunch of shots of various players dribbling and shooting in a dark arena.
Pumped up for their home debut, the Norse got off to a flying start. Back-to-back superhoops by Ethan Faulkner and Ernest Watson put NKU up 6-0 two minutes into the game. It was clear fairly quickly that Northern Kentucky definitely had some skilled players; the Norse were a Top 20 team in Division II last year. However, it was also apparent they were a little short on Division I athletes, as Upstate seemed to have an inch or two size advantage at every position, and most of the Spartans were a step quicker too.
USC-Upstate would slowly claw away at the lead, and took the lead for the first time at 16-15 with 11:14 left in the half on a Jodd Maxey dunk from a nice assist from Adrian Rodgers. Mario Blessing would go on a personal 5-0 run with a three-pointer and two free throws to extend the Spartan lead to six.
Torrey Craig hadn't contributed much to the proceedings at that point, and his chances of contributing took a hit when he sustained an apparent calf injury with about 5:00 left in the half. Craig would return to the game, but he never looked in synch the rest of the night. The Hopping Cats star would be limited to six points and six rebounds in 23 minutes of action, with five turnovers not helping the USC-Upstate cause.
Without getting much from Craig, Upstate put in a good team effort, spreading the scoring around. Two Ricardo Glenn free throws extended the Spartan lead to 12. Northern Kentucky would get a layup from Faulkner and one-of-two free throws from Eshaunte Jones to make the score 33-24 at the half.
Halftime featured some aggressive hip-hop dance stylings courtesy of the Northern Kentucky dance team. Northern Kentucky isn't exactly a hip-hop hotbed, country and indie rock tend to be the favored forms of music. But the team put on a surprisingly-good performance. Victor E. Viking, the Norse mascot, wandered the arena greeting little kids and taking photos. I don't recall Vikings ever having capes though. Cloaks maybe, but no capes. NO CAPES!
USC-Upstate would continue to hold on to their double-digit lead for the first four minutes of the second half. Suddenly, Jones found his stroke and hit back-to-back superhoops to narrow the lead to five. After an NKU free throw, Jones drove and made a lay-up to make the score 43-41 with 11:17 to go.
A media timeout contest featured a student getting a chance to win some tuition money. The first thing I noticed was the emcee. Normally, I have little patience for these hype machines, but when they are easy on the eyes and dressed as nicely as this lady was, they have more of my attention. She was also very professional about the promotion instead of trying to get the barely-there crowd to yell and scream for no reason.
The student had a chance to win $3,500 in tuition money, no small amount at all, if he could hit a free throw, three-pointer and half-court shot. The young gentleman, one of the few students to attend the game since NKU was still on holiday break, made the first two, but could not cash in on the half-courter. Still, $1,500 isn't a bad consolation prize.
Jones would continue his torrid shooting. Another three with 9:36 left narrowed the lead to one, 45-44. Craig would make a rare contribution with a tip-in to push the lead to three, but the Norse would tie the game with another superhoop, this time from Anthony Monaco. Northern Kentucky would then retake the lead with under six minutes to go courtesy of another Jones shot from behind the arc, his fifth of the night. NKU 50-47,
The lead would hold up for less than two minutes though. Fred Miller hit a three for Upstate to re-tie the game at 52-52. Miller would add a lay-up on the next trip down the court to give the Spartans the lead for good.
Upstate calmed the tides of war by their stunning display at the free-throw line. The Spartans would go a perfect 19-19 at the line on the evening, including four straight in the last 30 seconds to put the game out of reach.
So now Northern Kentucky will stop and rebuild all their ruins after a disappointing loss in their first Division I home game. But the Norse have plenty of time to build a program that will be ready to contend in three years when they are finally eligible for the Atlantic Sun championship and an NCAA tourney berth. Peace and love, along with some better athletes, will win the day, despite all of their losing that will come with the growing pains of being a new immigrant to Division I.