Basketball

Ballard product Holland's road leads to NKU

INDIANAPOLIS – Former Ballard High School standout Lavone Holland was on the eve of playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, leading a program making its first appearance and preparing to play one of the bluebloods of the sport.

NKU’s Lavone Holland II (30) shoots a jumper during practice at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis ahead of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Mar. 16, 2017

NKU’s Lavone Holland II (30) shoots a jumper during practice at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis ahead of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Mar. 16, 2017

Many players would consider the experience near the pinnacle of their college careers, but the Northern Kentucky University point guard wasn’t getting too excited Thursday.

“Right now, I just think I’m not satisfied with where we’re at,” Holland said. “Maybe that’s the problem.”

So even though the 15th-seeded Norse, playing in the tournament in their first year of NCAA Division I eligibility, are huge underdogs for Friday night’s South Region game against No. 2 Kentucky, don’t expect Holland to be happy just to be here as a participant at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“To be successful, you can’t be satisfied with the position you’re in,” he said.

Perhaps that’s the mindset that has helped Holland ascend to where he is now.

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The junior, who formerly teamed with Quentin Snider and Kelan Martin on Ballard’s 2013 state runner-up squad, is coming off an MVP performance in leading NKU (24-10) to the Horizon League Tournament title. He has averaged 18.5 points and 6.6 assists per game during a six-game winning streak.

“I feel confident in my game,” he said. “I know I put the work in. I took all the right steps to put myself in position to perform at a good level. … Whatever the defense gives me, I feel like I can take, or I know I can take, actually. It’s just confidence and talent.”

It didn’t come easily. Holland took a long road to end up as a key player on an NCAA Division I team.

Though he was a star on one of the state’s best high school teams in recent years, he was barely recruited out of high school because he wasn’t qualified academically.

He ended up venturing to L.A. Prep in Los Angeles for a postgraduate semester.

“It was rough,” Holland said of a program that he said ultimately folded. “It was more of a just-getting-started prep school.”

He transferred to the College of Southern Idaho at midyear but didn’t play in any basketball games, using a redshirt year.

After a coaching change at Southern Idaho, he transferred to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. There, he had a productive season, averaging 13.8 points on a 26-6 team, but he said that experience was also difficult because he often was put at power forward as a 6-foot-1 player.

“It was more tough for me to just stick with it and trust that all of this would pay off,” he said, “because it was a lot of ups and downs just to get something that I know I deserve and know I can do. For me, it was more keeping my faith than anything else.”

NKU’s Lavone Holland II (30) speaks to the media at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis ahead of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Mar. 16, 2017

NKU’s Lavone Holland II (30) speaks to the media at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis ahead of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Mar. 16, 2017

NKU was Holland’s only scholarship offer out of Coffeyville, but he said he liked that coach John Brannen believed in him as a point guard. He ended up starting 24 games last season, averaging 10.7 points. This season, his scoring has jumped to 14.3 points per game.

“He’s been phenomenal,” Brannen said. “At the point guard spot, he’s dynamic in what he can do with the basketball. He’s a big part of the run we’ve had and the way we’ve had a successful season. Add to the fact he comes from a successful program like Ballard, he understands winning, has been coached.

“More importantly … he’s a great kid. And for me, this has probably been one of the most enjoyable teams I’ve coached in my 18 years in the profession. It’s nice that it’s specific to Lavone, being a Kentucky kid.”

Holland doesn’t appear to be intimidated by the prospect of facing UK’s heralded backcourt of freshmen De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk.

“Kentucky is, I don’t want to say they’re another school – they’ve got talent – but for me, I don’t really get caught up in all the hype,” Holland said. “Like a wise man told me, ‘Don’t believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.’ So we’ve just got to see. … Their backcourt is obviously talented. For me, it’s competing, and it’s win or go home.”

At Ballard, Holland was the least-heralded of the Bruins’ three stars – after Snider (now at Louisville) and Martin (now at Butler). They formed a dynamic team that lost the championship game to Madison Central on a last-second shot. UK’s Dominique Hawkins, who was Holland’s former AAU teammate, was Madison Central’s best player.

“I don’t let that (loss) haunt me like I used to,” Holland said with a smile. “It’s just one of those things where you just have to live and let go.”

Holland said he, Snider and Martin don’t get the chance to talk much because of busy schedules, but Holland said he watches his former teammates’ games and keeps up with their college careers. He said he also wishes the best for UK’s Hawkins and Derek Willis (Bullitt East), who he has played against for years.

“I’m proud of everything they did and who they became,” Holland said. “It’s just good to see that I started with actually making it.”

Snider talked with Holland after the conference tournaments, and they wondered if maybe the Cardinals and Norse would get paired up in a No. 2-versus-No. 15 game.

Ultimately the Norse got paired with UK, and Snider said he laughed when he saw Holland’s excited reaction on TV during CBS’ selection show.

“I know he’s going to do his thing against Kentucky,” said Snider, who cheered as Holland scored 20 points against Milwaukee in the Horizon League title game. “Lavone can ball, man. I just feel like he was real underrated. When the big games show up, he really shows up for that. … That’s the Lavone that I know.”