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Q&A: RCN Sits Down with New NKU Men's Basketball Coach

The River City News Associate Editor Bryan Burke sat down with new Northern Kentucky University men's basketball coach John Brannen to talk about his new job, the direction of the program, and his return to Northern Kentucky. 
RCN: There has been a lot of change to NKU basketball recently.  Is the program prepared for so much change at once?
Brannen: It's an exciting time with the new challenges--and that's exactly what they are, new challenges that are getting ready to take place--to take a step up into the Horizon League, and it's going to take time. I'm excited about the expectations that are being created by this hire and also by the attention it's gotten from the area in terms of the fan base, and our young men certainly deserve that. But we're going to take steps to get there. We're in a rebuilding process. I want to create a championship-caliber program that is built to last and that will take time and I will explain that to the people here in Northern Kentucky, because if we can get everybody behind us, the support, the steps we're going to make going forward, I think they will be engaged with the style of play.  I think they will be engaged with how hard our young men will play. I think eventually that will turn into results.
RCN: How do you make up for the loss of Tayler Persons?
Brannen: My excitement level is with the guys we have here currently. One of the things that has really been obvious with our current players is their care factor. They have tremendous buy-in to the culture here. The culture is better than I anticipated and it's because of how much these guys care for each other and care for the university. So the men in that locker room I think are really anxious to get started and I am really excited about what we have. We'll make some additions to the program--we've done that already with one transfer and we have a few more scholarships to make some additions.
RCN: Does the Horizon League really bolster your recruiting pitch to kids?
Brannen: I think it will in time. The Horizon League provides a geographic footprint, which is obvious. Now, what does that mean? Well, I think it takes a few different avenues. It helps in terms of obviously the potential for rivalries. I think it helps having our fan base have some recognition of the programs walking through the doors, and I think it helps with recruiting because probably the biggest single factor for a young recruit at the end of the day is location. I think the Horizon League has a tremendous brand name in the Midwest, and the Kentucky-Indiana-Ohio region and beyond into Illinois, so I think that branding will help. The other comment that I have made since we moved to the Horizon League was that we are also building a brand here and I think the brand of the Horizon will help expose the brand of NKU basketball and of how we're going to play. 
RCN: Is it a goal of the program to be able to land local recruits of high-caliber players like James Bolden who never really seemed to be much on NKU's radar?
Brannen: Our goal is to recruit this region with tremendous energy and focus for players that we feel fit our style of play and what an NKU student athlete is. That's our top goal. I said this since the day I got the job, we have tremendous coaching in this area so I am excited about the opportunity to get young men who have been coached the way they have. ...Our goal is to recruit the area for young men who fit our style of play and fit what it means to be a student athlete at NKU. 
RCN: Have you had a chance to work with your current team?
Brannen: Yeah, a limited amount. When I got here, there were rules in place in the spring period that I could work with the team or specific players for two hours a week for small group workouts--no more than four at a time, and I only had about a two or three week period to do that, so it was good to have the chance to be on the floor with some of them and for them to get to know me a little bit. 
RCN: Do you have any early impressions with specific players?  
Brannen: No, most of what I have taken is being able to get out onto the floor and allow them to kind of show me what they do a little bit and let them hear my voice. In June, we will make concerted efforts to start to put in our system a little bit more, to start getting a chance to prepare for what will be the preseason, which will be the fall, because we are able to work with our guys for a limited amount of time this summer. 
RCN: Last year, it seemed at times that the Norse may have been actually too deep of a team and that may have inhibited the development of some players in terms of game-time experience. I know we are really early into it, but do you envision your team having as deep of a bench?
Brannen: You know, for me, with our style of play, we want to be able to have a deep bench. We want guys to be able to go out onto the floor and play as hard as they possibly can and when fatigue sets in, being able to rotate guys in and out. Guys playing multiple positions is ultimately our goal to be able to have a little bit of flexibility in that area. To put a number on it right now, because I don't know our team in terms of everything that encompasses how it's going to fit into our style of play, I don't know that yet.  
It's interesting, a season takes on a life of its own. It's a marathon, not a sprint, so between injuries and different things like that, things can change your rotation.  Probably the most fluid thing in college basketball when the season starts is your rotation. Going into it, as we move into the future building this program we'd like to be in the position where we're playing nine or ten guys with consistent minutes and we will see if we're able to do that early on or not. 
RCN: Are you already starting to think about how you can use the pieces in place on the existing roster?
Brannen: Our style of play is going to be something that revolves around defensively first. So we're going to have a style of play and we're going to get our personnel accustomed to it and that's how we're going to play. We're going to press and get up and down the court and we're going to do some different things defensively. We're going to change defenses. We're going to be an aggressive defensive team. Offensively, that will change as we figure out personnel-wise exactly what we have. Jalen Billups is obviously an outstanding talent and he's proven that over the course of his career, and I'm sure he will be a large part of our offensive package. We run some ball-screen motion type things to put the ball in the guys hands who need it in their hands and then we will have some quick-hitting stuff to get the ball down low to get some different things, so to stay consistently inside-out, I think any coach would like to do that. What we'll do is that we will have a certain way we play offensively and then we will adjust as we find out what our personnel is and how guys have developed over the course of this spring and summer. So that will be something that will be fluid and that we will evaluate throughout the summer, but defensively, that will be our statement.
RCN: Can you tell me a little bit about what you know about Alabama transfer Jeff Garrett?  
Brannen: I had a chance to coach him, so there's a tremendous comfort level for me and understanding what Jeff's all about and what he brings to the style of play. So at 6'7'' and almost 220 lbs., he's a tremendous athlete who will be outstanding in terms of length and athleticism on the wing. I think his best basketball is in front of him, and I think he is just scratching the surface of what he could become. This will become a very important year for Jeff. I was a transfer myself, and when you have the opportunity to really lock in our staff and what we're capable of helping him with, this has a chance to be a year where he looks back as one of the most important ones of his career. It can also be a lost year if it's not approached the right way. He understands that and that will be a big part of his maturation process, understanding how much he can get out of this season. I think the fans here at NKU will be excited about what he can bring in the following year.
RCN: What about recruiting ties in the Alabama area? Is that something you have been able to maintain? 
Brannen: Yeah, no question. I think that we're a product of our experiences, so any coach in this profession will always keep the relationships they've had and the regions that they've coached in.  I've been lucky, I've coached in New York, to Virginia, Kentucky, and down in Alabama. We will go to the South probably more so than any of the other Horizon League teams to go down and work our contacts and make sure that we're scouring every area that we need to in order to get the best players that fit our style of play. It will start in our recruiting web, but we will branch out those relationships involved. 
RCN: You've been here for about 40 days or so, how's it been?
It's been great. It's interesting, I've had the question, how have you enjoyed being home and I've been here at the office so much and been chasing guys around the country so much, that it's been all about building our culture here and building what we need to build. Just here in the recent days has it really felt like I'm back home.  Outside of the fact that I have eaten Skyline and Gold Star Chili seven times and LaRosa's and Greaters a number of times, it's now just feeling like I am back home because it really has been a whirlwind. And my family is still in Tuscaloosa--my wife and my daughters. It's been exhilarating is probably the best way to describe it.  Bumping into people you haven't seen in a long time when you're out to eat, but I haven't entrenched myself at being home yet because I have been so busy here. 
-Bryan Burke
Photos via NKU
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