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The long and short of it: Odd pairing fuels Green Bay's emergence

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

C (USATSI)
Some said Brian Wardle should've resigned in May. Now he's enjoying the best year of his career. (USATSI)

A lot of love was rightfully doled out Monday night, when Kansas locked up at least a share of its 10th straight Big 12 title. Mighty impressive.

But this season, the Jayhawks weren't the first to claim a conference crown. That honor went to Green Bay, which earned distinction as Horizon League titleholder last week when it defeated defending league champ Valpo to move to 22-5 overall and 12-2 in the league. The Phoenix can clinch sole championship possession of the Horizon Thursday, when they play at Horizon newcomer Oakland, who boasts the most prolific 3-point shooter in D-I history. This is the first regular-season league title for the program in 18 years, and it's been an interesting ride to get back to the top.

Looking for that ever-coveted double-digit-seed candidate that could win a game or two in the NCAA tournament? You could do a lot worse than Green Bay. The reason: the tall-and-small attack of senior center Alec Brown and junior point guard Keifer Sykes. More than 13 inches separate the two (Brown is 7-feet-1 and Sykes approximately 5-11), and because each has become so prolific, the Phoenix offer up an attack that few other teams -- forget just mid-majors -- can boast. They are a nightmare matchup. Just ask Virginia. You know, that Cavs team that's now 23-5 and leading the ACC with a 14-1 record?

Yeah, they lost at Green Bay 75-72 back in December.

"It's a nice a duo to have," Phoenix coach Brian Wardle said. "I don't think we'll ever have another Keifer Sykes and Alec Brown at Green Bay. They get along. Their games completely fit each other. Alec can step out and shoot and stretch the D, and Keifer is a physical, attacking guard. Both love to win and are very humble. You can have two players like that who are selfish and it can almost ruin your team in ways. I've seen it.”

From the outside looking in, the team was seemingly on the brink of ruin last spring, when Wardle was accused by multiple former Green Bay players of verbal mistreatment and alleged "physical embarrassment." Following an independent internal review, Wardle kept his job after the school determined claims against him were exaggerated or outright false. Amid that scandal, it was Sykes and Brown who took it upon themselves to publicly defend their coach while his name became attached to misconduct that they said was completely untrue.

"If anything, that situation brought us closer because we all knew the truth," Wardle said. "I'm a demanding coach. I'm a very fair coach. We moved forward and became even closer going through that. It was unfortunate, but we moved on and things were just fine in the program because we knew."

(For transparency's sake, I asked Wardle a follow-up question regarding the situation, and he responded, verbatim: "That whole situation is in the past and I'm just happy we've moved on.")

And now the team's come out of the other side looking like a chic Cinderella pick. It's one of very few mid-majors that could have a case for an at-large bid, should it fail to win the Horizon tournament.

"We responded really well. That's why I feel this team is winning," Brown said of this season and getting past last spring's drama. "It really showed on the team the core group of guys that were good guys. ... It brought out the best of the team that stayed. It brought us together more. Not just player-wise, but coaches as well. It's not like we stopped when that whole thing was going on. We were still working. It's not like our workouts paused or were on hold. We knew it was all going to blow by and wasn't going to be a big deal."

Brown is at the center of a defensive line that leads the nation in blocks per game (7.7) and is top 10 in field goal percentage D (38.6). The current blocked-shot mark in the Horizon is at 207 for Green Bay, a league record that was eradicated earlier this season.

Sykes is the only player in the country -- outside of Canisius' Billy Baron, whom we profiled recently -- who averages more than 20 points, five assists and four rebounds. He leads his conference in assist-to-turnover ratio. His vertical is ridiculous: 44.5 inches. That's seven inches higher than the physical freak, Jadeveon Clowney, put up at the NFL combine on Monday.

Sykes loves telling the story of his first dunk in a game. It was his first game of his senior year of high school on a broken play. He saved the ball out of bounds, then saw the other team steal it away, but then his team stole it back. Sykes was an unintentional cherry-picker. He had the space. He slammed it home.

He's been soaring higher ever since.

"Getting into the weight room changed everything," Sykes said. "I've been enhancing my skills and maintaining explosiveness."

As for the play he's most known for, arguably the dunk of the year, Sykes said it was a set play, but how it unfolded surprised even him.

"When I finished it, my adrenaline was going," he said. "But when I watched it later, I said, 'That's not even me.' I knew when I did it the catch was difficult and I didn't even know where the rim was, but that was crazy.”

Brown said Sykes has been this good since he saw him as a freshman. Brown said in terms of all-around basketball ability, Sykes is the best player on the team.

"His work ethic is amazing," Brown said. "The way he improved and how good he already he was. ... You can just tell in how he plays. He's tough. You can tell he grew up with a bunch of older siblings."

Eight of them in fact. The youngest in a family of four boys and five girls, Sykes grew up on southeast side of Chicago but went to Marshall High on the west side. For a time when he was younger, the family lived in a house with two bedrooms, before upgrading to a three-bedroom home. His father was the VP of a rec center, which is where he spent time learning the game when he wasn't playing in the playgrounds of "a project-type of neighborhood."

Where he grew up, “everywhere is dangerous,” according to Sykes. "It's regular to me."

Marshall High is where Wardle and his staff became convinced Sykes could be this good at this level. Wardle exceedingly values high school play more than AAU performance, despite the fact AAU pits teenagers against the best of the best, whereas high school can be a mixed bag. He saw in Sykes a kid who loves to compete.

"And I'm a big believer in how they play in big games, and Keifer Sykes always played big in big games," Wardle said. "In terms of expectation, I think he's a young man that works extremely hard. He's very driven and has a lot to play for. He's playing for something, he's working for something. He studies the game and seeks out criticism, which is a lost art with the youth today coming into college.”

Sykes is a film junkie. And without pushing the team to join him, Brown and Wardle said the rest of the team has willingly been going out of their way to sit in a dark room and learn how to be better, just as Sykes has done over the years.

It's a fun on-court odd couple, Sykes and Brown. The taller of the twosome, Brown entered college at approximately 195 pounds and has since added 30 more to his frame. He's a projected second-round pick in June, according to some. He's the only player in league history to have more than 1,500 points, 750 rebounds and 250 blocks. He'll set a new Horizon mark in swattage with nine more send-backs. But most dangerous? His deep range. Brown shoots 42.7 percent from 3. This in addition to being the school's leading rebounder (since the Phoenix went D-I in 1982).

So how about that: the big guy is who you watch for on the perimeter and the small fry is the force in the paint. It's why Green Bay's become a pain in the league and will be a tough prep for any team they're assigned to in the postseason.

"People don't understand how deep this team is," Sykes said. "The experience. We've been through a lot of games."

At the same time, even he admits the team now as a collective is better than he expected.

For Wardle, personally, it's been the most fun he's ever had as a coach. And that's saying something considering where he and this program were 10 months ago: embroiled in controversy and with his future as a D-I head coach, even for a short time, very much in doubt. Now he's got a pair of dynamic players that no other coach can match.

The regeneration of the Phoenix is nearly complete.

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