A transitional era is being bookended by institutional moves south of the Ohio River. Northern Kentucky University first announced that its men’s basketball program would make the jump to NCAA Division I in December of 2011. Now entering its fourth year in college’s premier division, the program is gearing up for a new challenge—competing in the Horizon League.

The transition from the Atlantic Sun Conference is one that makes sense to athletic director Ken Bothof. Location, he says, will work for NKU in many different ways. 

The closest institution to NKU in the Atlantic Sun was Lipscomb University in Nashville. This season there will be several Horizon League teams within that radius, including five in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

“From an athletic standpoint, it makes a big difference for us in terms of travel and travel costs.”

Bothof says states with Horizon League teams have a high density of NKU alumni, which leads to increasing interest for away games and a foot in the door for academic enrollment. Location, after all, acts as the foundation for rivalries (see: Ohio State-Michigan, UC-Xavier, Texas-Oklahoma), something Bothof says is possible to build with Wright State in Dayton and several other schools within a four-hour drive of NKU.

Athletically, less distance allows for fans and students to travel to games in a more competitive and personal league. 

“We’re becoming much more active in ticket sales, both season and individual sales. I think what people will see, especially in the sport of men’s basketball, is a real elevation in the talent level of the different programs that are in the Horizon League.”

Bothof says the geographic proximity of Horizon League schools to NKU will help the school recruit not only student-athletes but also students in general.

Focusing away from points on a map, the athletic director is intrigued by increased coverage from ESPN. The network and the Horizon League have a television deal and the regional and national exposure will put NKU on Tristate screens.

Transitioning fully into Division I from Division II is an involved process. This season is the last of the four-year transition period to the NCAA’s top division, meaning that NCAA tournament eligibility will begin for the Norse in 2016-17. 

The Norse recognize and embrace the shifting landscape of its basketball future, proven in its hiring of men’s basketball coach John Brannen in early April.

“He’s coached at the mid-major level, he’s coached at the highest level. He’s had success in each of those institutions,” says Bothof about Brannen, a Newport Central Catholic High School graduate and former University of Alabama associate head coach.

According to Bothof, Brannen brings a trifecta of pros to the table: He has an understanding of Division I basketball programs, he has Division I contacts as a recruiting foundation for NKU, and he has a deep connection to Northern Kentucky, something that means a lot to the region.