Northern Kentucky athlete Dantez Walton scooped up the ball from the official to set the play in motion, and four teammates — all scattered unevenly about the baseline, with one on his left and three on his right — began trotting down the floor as if Wilson had just belted out “hut hut!” and was masterminding a hurry-up offense.
Call it crazy, call it brilliant, or call it what it was: a successful and unique inbounds play that helped the Norse — who ironically don’t even have a football team from which to steal concepts — escape with a 68-64 win to improve to 14-4, their best start since the program was transitioned to the Division I level in 2012.
“Dan Muller actually ran the play at Illinois State, so I have to give him credit,” NKU coach John Brannen, who drew up the play, told CBS Sports. “I saw him run it, and I liked it because of the fact that it allowed us to get the ball inbounds, because you never see it. And secondly, it put us in position to put our two best foul shooters in position to probably be the first and second options on the play, which was the main thing because we were up three with 11 seconds to go.”
Brannen, who was a long-time Alabama assistant coach and who served as the interim coach in 2015, says the play call was put in the day before Friday’s tilt against Wright State. Keeping with pop culture, Brannen and Co. were inspired to name it after the champion crowned over his former employer earlier in the week.
“We put the play in a day before the game, and we called it ‘Clemson’,” Brannen said.
It’s hard to imagine trips right being called — much less working — on any basketball court. At any level. At any time. Especially a Division I contest with the game on the line.
But the unlikely success of the oddball play that triggered a viral cycle on social media is a microcosm of Northern Kentucky’s program direction since Brannen took over in 2015.
Northern Kentucky, put flatly, shouldn’t be this good. It is defeating the odds with every win. After all, it made the leap to the Division I level in 2012. In Brannen’s first season at the helm, the Norse won only nine games. But Northern Kentucky has a program blossoming at a rapid and healthy pace, and he’s been able to inject new life into a program that fell on hard times when it first made the leap to the big leagues.
In the first four seasons of the program’s Division I existence, it did not surpass 14 wins — including a bumpy 9-21 debut campaign for Brannen in 2015-16. But 18 games into the 2018-19 season, NKU finds itself tied atop the Horizon League standings, thanks in no small part to some imaginative, late-game playcalling from its coach, and potentially in the catbird seat to win the conference outright for a second consecutive season.
“We’ve done really well, we’ve got really good players, an unbelievable fanbase, and a number of years of success now,” Brannen says.