Charlie Riedel / Assocaited Press
Tuesday, March 26, 2019 | 2 a.m.
When it comes to coaching college basketball, there are different types of jobs a coach can inherit.
Some are minor rebuilding jobs. Some are complete tear-downs. Sometimes, a coach can be fortunate enough to take over a successful program, tasked only with keeping it running on time. John Brannen’s situation at Northern Kentucky was unlike any of those.
Three years before Brannen was hired in the spring of 2015, Northern Kentucky had applied to change its NCAA status, with plans to move up from Division II to Division I. The NCAA approved the move and the Norsemen embarked on a four-year transition process to become a DI university.
Brannen took over three years into that transition period. The first three transition years had gone badly, as the Norsemen competed in the D-I Atlantic Sun Conference and posted an overall record of 33-54 under coach Dave Bezold.
With one year left before the leap to full-fledged Division-I status, Northern Kentucky fired Bezold and brought in Brannen, a Kentucky native who had spent more than a decade as an assistant coach at various schools in the southeast region (Charleston, Eastern Kentucky, St. Bonaventure, VCU and Alabama, in order).
Brannen posted a 9-21 record in his first season, and the Norsemen went 5-13 in conference (their first year in the Horizon League). It was a trying campaign, but things turned around quickly. In 2016-17 — Brannen’s second year and Northern Kentucky’s first year as a Division-I program — he guided the Norsemen to a 24-11 record, including a 12-6 mark in league play. Improbably, Northern Kentucky rolled through the Horizon League tournament, claimed the championship and earned an NCAA tournament berth in the program’s first year of postseason eligibility.
Brannen has sustained that success over the past two seasons. He followed up the NCAA appearance by going 22-10 in 2017-18, including a regular-season Horizon League championship (15-3). This season, the Norsemen went 26-9 (13-5 Horizon) and made it to the NCAA tournament again.
In Brannen’s first four years as a head coach, the 45-year-old has racked up a career record of 81-51. Even more impressive is his record in the three years that Northern Kentucky has been a full D-I program: 72-30 overall, 40-14 in the Horizon League, two regular-season conference titles, two league tournament championships and two trips to the NCAA tournament.
Pretty good for a first-time coach leading a first-time Division-I program.
High-octane offense, aggressive defense
It appears as though Desiree Reed-Francois has a type when it comes to coaching profiles. While mid-major coaches like Buffalo’s Nate Oats, VCU’s Mike Rhoades and East Tennessee State’s Steve Forbes have stylistic differences, they all seem to favor fast-paced offenses and aggressive, turnover-fueled defenses.
Brannen fits that broad description. On the defensive end, he has gradually built Northern Kentucky into one of the best full-court press teams in the nation. While his early rosters weren’t tailored toward defending 90-plus feet, he has added quicker athletes who are capable of applying pressure in the backcourt, and that is now the program’s identity.
Like Rhoades, Brannen applies the press liberally. This season, Northern Kentucky pressed on 17.8 percent of defensive possessions, and the Norsemen finished 28th in the country in total possessions of press defense. And it was an effective strategy, as Northern Kentucky forced turnovers on 22.2 percent of possessions, which ranked No. 35 in the country.
Looking at the numbers over the past four years, you can clearly see a trend of Brannen turning up the pressure every season as he gets more and more of “his” players integrated into the system:
For comparison, VCU’s elite press defense under Rhoades ranked No. 6 in the nation with a turnover rate of 26.9 percent. Brannen’s press isn’t quite at that level yet, but it’s obviously an effective system. For the season, Northern Kentucky ranked No. 91 in the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing 0.864 points per possession according to Synergy Sports data.
By speeding up opponents on the defensive end, Brannen is able to dictate tempo and get his offense running as well. The Norsemen play relatively fast, as they finished No. 79 in total transition possessions in 2018-19, and they have an analytics-friendly approach to shot selection: lots of 3-pointers (including fast-break 3’s), lots of shots at the rim and lots of free-throw attempts.
Brannen does it differently than someone like Oats, however. The key was his usage of center Drew McDonald, a senior who was equally effective in the post (0.960 PPP) and spotting up from beyond the arc (39.4 percent).
Post-ups aren’t normally associated with efficient, up-tempo offenses, but Brannen adjusted to make McDonald the focal point. Northern Kentucky threw the ball inside to McDonald often (199 post possessions), but those plays didn’t look anything like a conventional post offense (such as the kind Marvin Menzies ran with Brandon McCoy in 2017-18).
Many of Northern Kentucky’s post sets featured four shooters spacing the floor, giving McDonald tons of space to attack the basket. Look at how much room he has to work with as the opposing help defenders stay glued to Northern Kentucky’s well-spaced shooters:
Again, look at the space McDonald has when he makes the catch:
That's what an open (yet still post-friendly) offense looks like. If a help defender were to double the post, McDonald would have easy passing angles out to an open shooter at the 3-point line.
And because of McDonald’s own ability to step out and shoot, he was often able to pull the opposing team’s biggest defender out to the perimeter. Northern Kentucky ran a lot of half-court plays with no one in the lane, and with all that empty space under the basket the Norsemen only had to beat one defender off the dribble in order to create a good, close-range layup attempt. For the season, Northern Kentucky finished 86th in field-goal attempts around the rim (579).
Here's an example of McDonald executing a dribble handoff and popping out to the wing; the biggest defender on the opposing team follows him out to the arc, allowing Northern Kentucky's guard to catch the ball on the move, turn downhill and score at the rim with no bigs around to contest the shot. The opposing big actually runs away from the dribbler because he's so concerned about sticking with McDonald:
It's a clever offense, leveraging one player's skills to make life easier for the rest of the team.
The Norsemen always looked to push the ball after missed baskets, and Brannen had the offense humming this season. Northern Kentucky had the No. 39 offense in points per possession (0.974) and the No. 49 transition attack (1.116 PPP). For the season, the Norsemen finished No. 9 in total assists (592), No. 53 in free-throw attempts (725) and No. 52 in 3-point attempts (845), with most of those totals due to pushing the pace. Northern Kentucky led the Horizon League in scoring, assists, 3-point percentage, 2-point percentage and overall field-goal percentage.
Brannen understands the importance of having four or five shooters on the court at the same time, and he clearly understands how spacing makes for good offense. His ability to adapt his scheme to take advantage of his most talented player also speaks well for his X’s and O’s acumen.
On both ends of the floor, Brannen seems to embrace the style of play that Reed-Francois is looking to bring to Las Vegas.
If there is a major gap in Brannen’s résumé, it’s recruiting. He inherited the top end of his rotation in his first season at Northern Kentucky, and his second season — which included the Norsemen’s first NCAA run — was built around much of the same core.
He did a good job building this season’s squad, which returned just two starters from the team that won the Horizon League regular-season title in 2017-18. The biggest addition was junior guard Tyler Sharpe, who began his college career as a walk-on at Louisville; Brannen brought him in and put him on scholarship, and Sharpe rewarded him by scoring 14.4 points and hitting 38.3 percent from 3-point range. Senior guard Zaynah Robinson (6.9 points, 38.3 3FG%) was added as a grad transfer from Norfolk State.
Brannen has also hit on some good high-school recruits in putting together the 2018-19 team. Sophomore guard Jalen Tate (13.7 points, 4.1 assists) had a breakout year, and junior forward Dantez Walton (11.1 points, 5.5 rebounds) was an AP All-State first-team selection for Ohio as a HS senior in 2016.
Brannen’s 2018 class didn’t make a huge contribution as freshmen; two of the three were unranked recruits and the other was a 2-star recruit. So far, the incoming 2019 class is made up of a 2-star prospect from North Carolina, a 2-star from Wisconsin and a 2-star from Kansas. The majority of Brannen’s high-school recruits have been regional, based in Kentucky or Ohio.
Maybe the biggest plus in Brannen’s recruiting history was the work he did to keep McDonald in 2015. McDonald committed to Brannen’s predecessor, and after that coach was fired Brannen was able to convince McDonald to stick with Northern Kentucky. He was the Horizon League Player of the Year this season. Maybe that would bode well for UNLV, which currently has five players in the transfer portal.
UNLV is a program that should be able to recruit nationally, and the Rebels’ coach should be able to tap into the fertile Southern California and Las Vegas regions consistently. With Brannen, that would all be projection.
If UNLV can’t get Oats or Rhoades or Forbes, then Brannen may be the next-best thing. His broad philosophies are similar — aggressive defense, efficient offense — and he’s a cunning X’s and O’s mind who has shown an ability to adapt to his personnel. He has also taken on the challenging job of guiding a program to the Division-I level and succeeded, which should say something about his big-picture leadership.
If UNLV offered the job, Brannen would likely say yes. Though he has signed contract extensions with Northern Kentucky each of the last two offseasons, he is reportedly making just $370,000 per year through the 2021-22 season.
It’s not an automatic fit, however, and there is no guarantee he could work similar magic at UNLV. Though he has built Northern Kentucky into a top-100 program in just three years of Division-I eligibility (with a pair of NCAA appearances to show for it), the jump from the Horizon League to a market like Las Vegas is hard to project. His recruiting base appears to be the southeast, with a couple Great Plains-region recruits sprinkled in. It's not a natural fit for the Runnin' Rebels.
Brannen isn’t the hottest name on the market. Oats has NCAA-tournament wins, top-25 rankings and a track record of recruiting star players; Rhoades has turned around a bad program (Rice) and built VCU into the nation’s best defensive team; Forbes has a guaranteed pipeline to junior-college talent. Brannen’s résumé doesn't match up with those guys’ – yet. But those guys may already be out of UNLV’s reach, ticketed for premier jobs at power-conference schools. If UNLV is looking to snare a coach who is truly on the way up — before he becomes un-gettable — Brannen could be that coach.
It's just not a sure thing.