LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Northern Kentucky coach Darrin Horn might be looking forward to his team's NCAA Tournament appearance even more than his players.
The Norse won their fourth Horizon League championship since 2016-17 but will play in March Madness for the first time since 2019. They also won the league title in 2020, but there was no NCAA Tournament that year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That denied Horn a chance to lead his first NKU squad in the Big Dance, which makes this berth a bit more special. Especially after the Norse let an opportunity slip away in last year's Horizon Tournament.
“We kind of feel like we had one taken from us literally, where you qualify for the tournament and then the tournament just doesn’t happen,” Horn said in a phone interview. “So, to finally punch your ticket and know that there’s going to be games and you’re going to be a part of the process, that’s really exciting.”
The No. 16 seed Norse (22-12) will face Midwest top seed Houston on Thursday night in Birmingham, Alabama. NKU features the nation's No. 27 defense (63.6 points allowed per game) and the No. 42 scorer in junior guard Marques Warrick (19.1 points).
Howard’s last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1992 was a 100-67 loss to Midwest top seed Kansas. Back then, Kenneth Blakeney was a 20-year-old Duke sophomore on a Blue Devils squad that repeated as national champions.
Blakeney now coaches Howard and will lead the No. 16 seed Bison (22-12) against the defending national champion and top-seeded Jayhawks again, this time in a West Region first-round game. Howard topped Norfolk State 65-64 for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament championship, capping a remarkable turnaround from 4-29 in Blakeney's debut season in 2019-20 to their first regular-season and tournament titles since that last trip to the Big Dance.
“To represent Howard University is a big honor for me," said Blakeney, a Washington, D.C., native, via email. "I'm humble to be a mentor at a great university. Kansas is a national, traditional and historic program. I’m excited.”
The D.C. school is one of two historically Black colleges and universities in the tournament. Texas Southern won the Southwestern Athletic Conference title and will face Fairleigh Dickinson in a matchup of No. 16 seeds in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio.
It’s been quite a year for West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.
Huggins was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September. He became the winningest active Division I coach last week when Jim Boeheim retired at Syracuse.
The Mountaineers (19-14) overcame a horrible start to Big 12 play to reach the NCAA Tournament field as a No. 9 seed. They’ll meet No. 8 seed and state line rival Maryland (21-12) on Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I never had any doubt that we wouldn’t play in the tournament,” Huggins said Sunday night. “I thought we were getting better and better.”
West Virginia lost its first five Big 12 games but rebounded to finish 7-11 in arguably the nation's toughest league. The NCAA bid wouldn’t have been secured without three wins in the Mountaineers' final four regular-season games, including over Iowa State and No. 12 Kansas State.
“I’m good with it,” Huggins said. “Obviously we wanted to win more games. We just had some things happen.”
Marquette’s first-round East Region matchup Friday against Vermont gave Golden Eagles guard and Big East player of the year Tyler Kolek a chance to catch up with an old friend.
Kolek began his college career at George Mason while playing for a coaching staff that included Bryson Johnson, who is now a Vermont assistant. As soon as the matchup of No. 2 and No. 15 seeds was announced, Kolek and Johnson began exchanging texts.
“We had some competitive fire going back and forth,” Kolek said. “We’d always shoot against each other (at George Mason). He actually played at Bucknell and he was a pretty good player. Just a little trash talk.”
Marquette beat Xavier 65-51 on Saturday to earn its first Big East Conference title.
No. 1 overall seed Alabama and archrival Auburn, the Midwest No. 9 seed, won't have to go far for their tournament debuts.
Both schools will open in Birmingham, Alabama, a 58-mile hop from Tuscaloosa for the Crimson Tide, who on Thursday will face the winner of the No. 16 seed matchup between Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Southeast Missouri State.
The Tigers will travel about 110 miles for their first-round meeting with No. 8 seed Iowa, where Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was an assistant from 1986-92.
AP Sports Writers Mike Marot, Steve Megargee, John Raby and Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
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