INDIANAPOLIS — Faceless and nameless.
That was the oft-repeated line in Northern Kentucky’s locker room on the eve of their inaugural NCAA Tournament appearance. It’s how the Norse are viewing their opponent.
But, of course, that opponent happens to be a school 80 miles south of them with one of the best brands in basketball. Kentucky is a double-digit favorite against Northern Kentucky, but NKU is taking a “Hoosiers”-like approach in Indianapolis.
“It’s just a ball and a hoop,” junior forward Jordan Garnett said. “You just got to go out there and play.”
It’s the same approach UK is taking. The in-state matchup doesn’t mean all that much to Houston native De’Aaron Fox.
“If we were playing them in the first round or Arizona in the first round, we’re not trying to approach this game any different than the next,” Fox said.
Northern Kentucky won the Horizon League Tournament as the No. 4 seed. The Norse had the fortune of playing Milwaukee, the No. 10 seed, in the conference championship game. And now the unlikely set of circumstances has led to a matchup with in-state giant Kentucky.
But the goal is to not get caught up with the brand.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re playing a high school team, Kentucky or the Lakers,” sophomore forward Drew McDonald said.
McDonald is second on the team with 16.4 points per game and he leads the Norse in rebounding at a 7.7 per game clip. He’s one of three NKU players listed at 6-foot-7. Kentucky has six players standing at least 6-foot-8. Kentucky’s football roster has four players taller than Northern Kentucky’s tallest basketball player.
“When you have overlooked teams like us, sometimes that brings more motivation to the table,” freshman guard Mason Faulkner said. “But we always have that chip on our shoulder. Everybody in here has a chip on their shoulder. When you have that playing as a team, playing together for each other, the outcome has been strong so far.”
Senior Cole Murray was one of the program’s pioneers on the NCAA Tournament trail. He leads the team with 99 made 3-pointers and has helped guide the Norse to their first tournament appearance in their first year of eligibility.
Cole’s dad, Dave Murray, was at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday watching his son practice. And on Friday he’ll watch him fulfill a dream.
“You go back to all the years that he was filling out brackets and the excitement when he came home from school,” Dave Murray said. “Obviously, every kid wants the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. It’s the ultimate goal.”
Players from both locker rooms were taking the “it’s-just-another-game” approach, but McDonald admitted he’ll appreciate it more when it’s all over.
“It really hasn’t set in as much recently,” McDonald said. “I think after the year, when things start to settle down and we get to look back on it, it’s been pretty cool.”