Among Possible Cinderellas, Green Bay’s Ceiling Higher Than Most

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 1st, 2014

Oakland’s Greg Kampe screamed and scolded and tried everything he could to stop Green Bay’s second half surge on Thursday night, but it was ultimately futile—the Phoenix was just too talented, too relentless, too good for the Grizzlies to handle for 40 minutes. In fact, with a dynamic point guard and an NBA-caliber center leading the charge, Brian Wardle’s club might end up being the Horizon League’s most serious NCAA Tournament threat since the great Butler teams of yesteryear. And not just a one-off threat, either. If it can take care of business in the conference tournament, this bunch has legitimate second weekend potential in the Big Dance.

Keifer Sykes and the Phoenix are capable of doing damage in the Dance. (USAT)

Keifer Sykes and the Phoenix are capable of doing damage in the Dance. (USAT)

For one thing, Green Bay has the bodies and athleticism to hold its own against a lot of high-major behemoths. Alec Brown—the aforementioned future pro—is a 7’1’’ big man who can be as effective on the perimeter as he is on the low block. Which is to say, all around really effective. Against Oakland, Brown shot 4-for-7 from the behind the arc, including a quick-release transition three, and improved his mark to nearly 47 percent on the year. He’s even more lethal in the paint (shooting well above 50 percent), and is anything but a one-way player: Brown’s block rate is good for 32nd in the country and he’s already broken his own school record for blocked shots in a season three different times. And while the senior might serve to improve on his rebounding, Jordan Fouse and Greg Mays are more than equipped to fill any void that exists on the glass. The pair of athletic forwards are fine compliments to Brown, adept at cleaning up misses and throwing down jams. Fouse, for example, racked up nine rebounds (four offensive) and shot 6-for-6 from the field against the Grizzlies, including a thunderous alley-oop dunk to accentuate the Phoenix’s 11-0 run out of the halftime break. The frontcourt’s size and athleticism is uncharacteristic for a program of Green Bay’s stature, fully capable of giving an unwitting or under-prepared high-major opponent all kinds of fits in a few weeks.

But the NCAA Tournament is ultimately a point guard’s game, and that’s where Wardle’s group separates itself from most other potential Cinderellas: its point man, Keifer Sykes, is truly elite. The junior was the key in Green Bay’s win on Thursday—his intensity on both ends of the floor sparked the second half eruption—and will likely dictate the team’s ceiling in the coming month. At 5’11’’, Sykes is incredibly quick and uncommonly, often strikingly explosive. When points were hard to come by against Oakland, he attacked the rim and exploited defenders who underestimated his ability to elevate, resulting in made layups and numerous trips to the free throw line. His stop-on-a-dime crossovers enable him to create shots when there are none, and his speed often allows him to penetrate and open up looks for teammates, indicated by his sparkling 30.9 assist rate. Sykes—averaging roughly 20 points and five dimes a game while shooting 80 percent from the stripe—is the steady, reliable hand that can navigate the Phoenix through adverse situations and disparate competition in the opening weekend.

On Travis Bader’s senior night—a poignant occasion at the O’Rena—Kampe was loath to give the visiting team all the credit: “Yeah, they’re good, but…” the coach began his post-game comments, before describing his own squad’s mishaps. But even he would have a hard time denying that a 40-19 drubbing over the game’s final 20 minutes was the product of something more than just Oakland’s misfortune. Fact is, the 71-63 score was probably more a testament to the Phoenix’s mental toughness and ability to make adjustments than anything. Although the Horizon champ has proven fallible this season and still has plenty of work remaining, those qualities—resiliency, the ability to adapt—could serve it especially well on college basketball’s grandest stage. It’s already beaten Virginia (you know, the ACC’s top dog) and pushed Wisconsin to the brink earlier in 2013-2014, so the ability is there to win an NCAA Tournament game. Whether it can win multiple games and cement itself in March lore is a different prospect altogether, and at this point unpredictable. But if there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s this: Green Bay has the talent to make a run.

Tommy Lemoine (249 Posts)

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