The Norse Belong.

posted by Mo Egger, ESPN1530 -

Kansas. Kentucky. North Carolina. Duke. Villanova. Louisville. Their names will be called.

Cincinnati. Gonzaga. Notre Dame.  Their names will be read as well.

Maryland. Wisconsin. Butler. Baylor. Them too.

Purdue. Arizona. West Virginia. Yeah, them as well. 

And then somewhere, among the 68 teams lucky enough to see their names on a screen with a number next to it and a first round opponent matched up with it, will be....Northern Kentucky?

Yeah, bub. Northern Kentucky.

The Norse are going dancin', having wrapped up the school's first men's basketball NCAA Tournament bid as a full-fledged Division I member, gutting their way through fatigue and past an inspired Milwaukee team in the Horizon League Tournament final in Dertroit, 59-53.

The Norse, on Sunday, will have their name called.

For a few minutes at least, they'll be on equal footing with, and they'll mentioned in the same sentences as, some of college basketball's most storied programs, some of the sport's biggest March mainstays, and more than a few area schools whose fans have come to take tournament bids for granted. 

NKU has made the NCAA Tournament. That statement without context seems important, but perhaps unimpressive.  The charm of the Big Dance is the little guy gets his shot, the school from nowhere getting its run with the name brands, improbable stories of teams that weren't supposed to make it, and even more improbable stories of teams that weren't supposed to win, but did.

NKU has had its ticket punched to that dance. One that, like most years, will have plenty of eyebrow-raising invitees.  Northwestern will be one.  The Wildcats will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, and much will be made about how that school finally assembled a team - in a power league - good enough to finally gets the school's chance at the Madness. But with all due respect, unlike NKU, Northwestern has had eight decades to figure out how to have their name called, having been eligible for the tournament since its inception. 

Northern Kentucky has been eligible since last summer. Why wait 77 years when you can just make it on your first try?

It's easy to focus on what specifically earned the Norse the tournament berth that will become official on Sunday. They won three games in three days, playing in a one-bid league whose tournament embodied the chaos that's come to define college basketball's defining weeks.  They overcame themselves before righting things to beat Wright State, they countered every punch thrown by Youngstown State, and in the championship game, they made just enough plays to outlast a history-minded Milwaukee team that wouldn't go away.

But NKU's story goes beyond the three-day run in Motown. They won 21 regular season games, they finished with 12 victories in their league, and survived a tough mid-winter three-game losing streak to finish with nine wins in their last 11 games. All of this a year after the Norse slogged their way through their initial Horizon League season with nine wins total. All of this not too far removed from toiling in the identity-bereft Atlantic Sun Conference.  And none of it that far removed from the days when it seemed ambitious to even think about NKU being a Division I member.

And now, here they are.  Not only a D1 member, but one of 68 D1 teams that will play in the D1 tournament. 

NKU basketball has always had a weird place in the local sports landscape. Its successes have often been met with proverbial pats on the head as attention has been paid almost exclusively to the bigger programs on the other side of the river. It's been a growing school, but with a mostly-commuter student body that, if you polled them, I'll bet swings it sports allegiances to the school in Lexington.  And even as the Norse have scratched and clawed to find their way as a full-fledged, bona fide, hey-we-deserve-attentiont-too program, it's struggled to prove it belongs.

On Tuesday night in Detroit, and over the course of this season, the Norse proved that they belong. Both here, and among the other 67 that will see their names on TV this Sunday.

(Photo: @NKUNorse)

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