Defense serves as catalyst for Horizon League leader Green Bay

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With senior center Alec Brown and junior guard Keifer Sykes leading the way, the Green Bay Phoenix entered the 2013-14 season with high hopes. After losing seven games by six points or less in 2012-13, another year of seasoning for the Phoenix had the potential to make a major difference in regards to their ability to close out tight games.

That’s been the case for Brian Wardle’s team to this point in the season, as the Phoenix boast an 18-4 overall record and are 8-1 in Horizon League play. And the run began, as has been the case for a number of mid-major programs over the years, during non-conference play.

While the Phoenix did lose games to Wisconsin and Harvard, they did manage to knock off a Virginia team that currently sits in second place in the ACC. Not only did those games provide Green Bay with lessons that could be applied to Horizon League play, but they also resulted in the confident feeling that they can compete with anyone.

“One thing our guys learned [during non-conference play] is that when we’re healthy we can play with anyone,” Wardle told NBC Sports this week. “There’s an expectation in the locker room now that we can’t beat ourselves. We have to go out there and play Green Bay basketball and play to our identity.

“I thought we had many opportunities to beat Wisconsin and couldn’t finish it off,” Wardle added. “We had the lead with five minutes remaining at Harvard and let the game slip away, and we got Virginia. So we’ve had some very competitive non-conference games that have prepared us for Horizon League play and have definitely helped us, especially on the road.”

Green Bay has forged its identity on the defensive end of the floor, an area in which many of the nation’s best teams perform well. Because on nights in which a team struggles offensively, sound defense can help make up for those woes and keep them in games. Green Bay currently leads the Horizon League in field goal percentage defense (39.0%) and ranks second in three-point percentage defense (31.5%), and they’re also second in the league in defensive efficiency.

“That’s our identity. That’s what’s in our locker room everywhere, and that’s what I preach as a coach,” noted Wardle. “That’s what we spend three-quarters of our practices on, how we defend and how we rebound.”

As a result of their execution defensively the Phoenix have been able to win games regardless of how many points are scored, including a 62-52 win over Detroit in which they shot just 28.3% from the field with that being the lowest field goal percentage in a win in school history. With Brown averaging more than three blocks per game and Jordan Fouse and Greg Mays also being capable defenders, Green Bay has the pieces needed to win low-scoring affairs.

But even with a solid defense at his disposal, the fact that Wardle can call on two of the Horizon League’s best players in Brown and Sykes for points certainly doesn’t hurt.

The 7-foot-1 Brown has the ability to score both inside and out, as he possesses range out beyond the three-point line. Currently averaging 16.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, the senior center is shooting 48.8% from the field and is also one of Green Bay’s most proficient long-range shooters (39.7%). Given the scarcity of players possessing that range of skills (and footwork), Brown is a tough matchup for opponents on most nights.

On the other end of the spectrum is the 5-foot-11 Sykes, who may be one of the most exciting players in college basketball. With his ability to finish well above the rim the junior from Chicago has put together some impressive highlights, but to think his game is solely about flash would be a mistake. Outside of his three-point percentage Sykes has improved on all of his numbers from a season ago, and he’s currently averaging 20.6 points, 5.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game.

And while he’s only shooting 31% from three this season, the fact that he made more than 42% of those attempts a season ago has helped open up driving lanes for Sykes. And that ultimately benefits his teammates as well.

“The other guys play off of Alec and Keifer. We have a lot of guys, high-energy players, around them who just make plays off of them,” Wardle said. “We’re an unselfish group. When you have a senior (Brown) who doesn’t care about how many points he scores or individual notoriety; all he wants is success and Keifer’s the same way. That provides a good environment and culture in the locker room.”

Brown and Sykes are the leaders, but by no means is this a two-man team. Players such as Fouse, Mays, Carrington Love and Vincent Garrett have all been valuable contributors, and in total Green Bay has eight players averaging double digits in minutes. Wardle’s guys understand their roles, and just as importantly they’ve accepted those roles.

Yet even with their successful start there are still areas in which the Phoenix can continue to grow, with Wardle citing the need for them to improve their shot selection and spacing on offense. And their defense will also be important, with Green Bay needing to make strides on the boards. At present time the Phoenix rank eighth in the Horizon League in defensive rebounding percentage, and the act of getting teams to miss shots doesn’t hold much value if you can’t complete the possession by grabbing the resulting rebound.

“Defensive discipline and consistency from start to finish, and rebounding, will be our keys,” noted Wardle when asked about what lies ahead for Green Bay. “Our best offense is our defense and I tell the guys that all the time, because when we get stops we can run and we can run fast. But it doesn’t start unless you get stops and rebounds.”

Just past the halfway point of league play Green Bay holds a two-game lead on Cleveland State and Valparaiso, with the Crusaders having handed Green Bay (who was without the injured Brown) their lone Horizon League defeat. Defending and rebounding grow in importance as the season approaches March, with those areas being the difference between “contender” and “champion” in many instances.

If Green Bay can continue to make strides in those areas, they’re more than capable of making the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996.

Southern Conference Preview: Chattanooga and East Tennessee State face off

Chattanooga head coach Matt McCall directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State, Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southern Conference.

The rivalry between Chattanooga and East Tennessee State should be in full force this season as the two intra-state enemies should once again find themselves sitting atop the SoCon standings.

Chattanooga has to be considered the favorites entering the season. The Mocs went 29-6 last season. They won at Georgia, at Illinois and at Dayton. They won the SoCon regular season title at 15-3. They won the SoCon tournament title, beating ETSU in the process. They not only return four starters from last year’s team – including Tre’ McLean and Justin Tuoyo, who were all-league players last year – as well as Casey Jones, who was the 2015 SoCon Player of the Year and the 2016 Preseason SoCon Player of the Year before a dislocated ankle ended his season in December.

Think about that for a second. The Mocs did their majority of their damage last season without the guy the coaches thought would be the best player in the conference. And now he’s back, along with basically everyone else. Matt McCall will likely start his coaching career with two straight league titles.

But Steve Forbes and East Tennessee State won’t roll over easily, you can be sure of that. It wasn’t the least bit surprising that he was able to churn out a 24-12 season and a second-place finish in the league in his first year as head coach, mainly because he was able to stock the roster with high-major talent. This year, he adds former Indiana big man Hanner Mosquera-Perea and former Wichita State big man Tevin Glass to another former Hoosier, 7-footer Peter Jurkin. Throw in the return of all-SoCon guard T.J. Cromer and the addition of a handful of JuCon guards, including two JuCo all-americans, and the Bucs will be loaded as well.

Furman lost league Player of the Year Stephen Croome, but the Palladins return four starters from a team that won 11 league games. Niko Medved’s team should be in the mix to finish top four. Mercer lost a trio of starters from a team that finished 8-10 and dealt with the murder of a player in the middle of the season. It isn’t wise to bet against Bob Hoffman, especially when he adds the kind of JuCo talent he’s bringing in this year, but the death of a teammate is not easy to overcome.

Mike Young is one of the best coaches at the mid-major level, but after consecutive years of losing strong senior classes, it’s caught up to hi at Wofford. Fletcher MaGee is the Terrier to keep an eye on. Wes Miller has continually lost talented transfers, but this seems to be the year where UNC Greensboro has some stability. They bring back four starters from a team that won 10 games in the league.

Samford is the team to keep an eye on in the league. Christen Cunningham returns to provide a veteran scoring presence while Scott Padgett adds quite a bit of high-major talent: three high-major transfers will be eligible to play this year. Throw in a talented freshman class, and the Bulldogs have some potential.

Western Carolina graduated a four-man senior class that averaged a combined 52 points last season. The Citadel scores a ton of points but allowed an average of 92.6 points per game last season. Butler put 144 points on them. VMI struggled to adjust to new head coach Dan Earl, who replaced Duggar Baucom (who took over at The Citadel), but Q.J. Peterson might be the best scorer in the league.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule



Chattanooga has three players on their roster capable of winning the SoCon Player of the Year award. So assuming they cancel each other out, we’re going to go with Cromer, who should be the best player on an ETSU team that can push for the SoCon title.


  • Justin Tuoyo, Chattanooga: He’s the best defensive presence around the rim in the league.
  • Casey Jones, Chattanooga: The 2015 SoCon Player of the Year. Is he healthy?
  • Tre’ McClean, Chattanooga: He was the best player for the Mocs last season.
  • Q.J. Peterson, VMI: VMI should be better. Peterson will probably still average 20 point.s


1. Chattanooga
2. East Tennessee State
3. UNC Greensboro
4. Mercer
5. Samford
6. Furman
7. Wofford
8. VMI
9. Western Carolina
10. The Citadel

Arizona lands four-star 2017 power forward

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In a span of eight days, Arizona head coach has reeled in a pair of four-star recruits, adding to what is currently the top recruiting class in the country.

On Thursday evening, Ira Lee, a 6-foot-7 power forward, announced that he had verbally committed to the Wildcats via his personal Twitter account.

Last Wednesday, Brandon Randolph, a four-star shooting guard, pledged to the Wildcats. The newest commits join a class that is headlined by the nation’s top overall prospect, DeAndre Ayton, as well as four-star guard Alex Barcello.

Arizona, which opens the 2016-17 season with no shortage of options on the perimeter, is currently stacking the frontline for the future. Lauri Markkanen is so highly-touted that his stay is Tucson is expected to end next spring. Even if the 7-foot Finnish freshman does depart for the NBA Draft, the Wildcats could possibly throw out a frontcourt that includes Dusan Ristic, Ray Smith, Chance Comanche, as well as Ayton and Lee, for the 2017-18 campaign.

Lee ran with Earl Watson Elite on the Under Armour Association this spring and summer. In 17 appearances in the UAA, Lee averaged 14.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 block per game.

Lee had previously visited Cal and Oregon before making his decision.

WATCH: Markelle Fultz make a half-court, no-look shot

Markelle Fultz, via UW Athletics
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Washington lead guard Markelle Fultz is slated to be one of the most impact freshmen in college basketball this season.

There’s been buzz surrounding the five-star recruit all summer. The 6-foot-4 Fultz earned tournament MVP honors as he guided the USA U18 national team to a gold medal in the FIBA Americas. He later showed off during Washington’s foreign tour in Australia, dropping 33 points in a losing effort.

There’s also been clips of Fultz on social media, like this highlight-reel dunk in the team’s practice facility.

On Wednesday afternoon, Fultz was captured hitting a half-court shot with his back facing the basket.

The meteoric rise of Fultz — going from a jayvee player as a sophomore to the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft — will be a constant storyline during this season, especially if the DeMatha Catholic product can lead the Huskies into the NCAA Tournament conversation. Washington has not been to the Big Dance since 2011.

The Huskies kick off the 2016-17 campaign on Nov. 13, as they host reigning Ivy League champion Yale.

Karl Malone Award Watch List announced

California's Ivan Rabb encourages the crowd to cheer in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Saint Mary's Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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The preseason watch list for the Karl Malone award was released on Thursday.

The award is given to the nation’s best power forward. In 2016, the Karl Malone award was given to Iowa State’s Georges Niang.

Here are the 20 players on the watch list for this season:

Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Ivan Rabb, California
Amile Jefferson, Duke
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State
Yante Maten, Georgia
Carlton Bragg Jr., Kansas
Dedric Lawson, Memphis
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Isaiah Hicks, North Carolina
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Michael Young, Pittsburgh
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Tyler Lydon, Syracuse
Bennie Boatwright, USC
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Kris Jenkins, Villanova
Austin Nichols, Virginia
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin

Five Talking Points from Louisville’s Notice of Allegations

Rick Pitino
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On Thursday morning, Louisville released the Notice of Allegations that they received from the NCAA following an investigation into the escort scandal that enveloped the basketball program.

They got hit with four Level I violations.

You can read the details of the NCAA’s findings here.

Here are four things to know about what these allegations mean for the Louisville program and for Pitino.

1. The NCAA did not allege that Rick Pitino knew: That’s the biggest thing to note here. Pitino himself did get nailed with a Level I violation, a failure to monitor charge. The way the new NCAA rules are structured, there is no more plausible deniability. If it happened within a program, the head coach has to take his share of the blame, and Pitino will certainly have to deal with the fall out of that.

But the NCAA did not find evidence that Pitino himself knew about the escorts or that he sanctioned the parties that they were attending with recruits and players. So while Pitino spent Thursday’s press conference talking himself in circles – he said he “over-monitors” his staff while also saying he’s only “guilty of trusting someone.” – the bottom line is that the only connection he officially has to this scandal is that it happened under his watch.

2. It would be shocking if Pitino doesn’t get suspended: Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and then-SMU head coach Larry Brown, hall of famers that were suspended for nine games apiece at the start of last season, both found that out the hard way that the NCAA will suspend a coach when violations occur in their program. This scandal has been one of the biggest stories in college basketball for more than a year. Pitino is not going to get away without an added punishment, but based on the timeline – Louisville has 90 days to respond to the allegations, and the NCAA has 60 days to handle that response – any additional sanctions, including a coach suspension, won’t be until at least the 2017-18 season.

3. Andre McGee is the hero Louisville didn’t know they needed: Louisville found their fall guy.

McGee, a former staffer that eventually rose to Director of Basketball Operations, killed any chance of continuing his coaching career when he refused to talk to be interviewed by the NCAA in this case. He refused to talk to the media, with ESPN’s Outside the Lines only able to get a ‘no comment’ on tape while McGee zipped away in the Uber he was driving.

He didn’t speak to the media. He didn’t tweet about the case. He never revealed, publicly of off the record, where the money ($5,400 confirmed by the NCAA) came from, how he snuck the girls into the players’ dorm, or if anyone above him in the program gave him the go-ahead.

“I’m not guilty of failing to monitor my staff. I’m guilty of trusting someone,” Pitino said Thursday. “This young man made a very big mistake, and we apologize for his mistakes.”

McGee fell on the sword. The only way that this gets spun as anything other than an over-ambitious, rogue staffer trying to launch his career is if McGee breaks his silence. Until then, Louisville basketball is protected.

4. The 2013 title is may not be safe: In ‘Breaking Cardinal Rules’, Katina Powell named players that played on the 2013 title team as having been involved in the scandal. And given that this was happening between 2010 and 2014, it’s pretty safe to assume that at least one player that won a ring was involved. The NCAA has ruled the parties as an impermissible benefit, which would allow them to be able to rule the players involved as retroactively inactive.

The document released by Louisville has names and dates redacted, but it is safe to assume the NCAA within their rights to vacate the 2013 national title season. Chuck Smrt, a former NCAA enforcement director, said, “We don’t believe a vacation of records penalty is appropriate,” but that certainly doesn’t mean the Cardinals are in the clear. The NCAA is notoriously inconsistent with decisions like this, so predicting the outcome is difficult, but my guess would be that the banner is not taken down. The NCAA has never stripped a men’s basketball team of a title, and Louisville self-imposed a postseason ban in February, just four months after this story broke, on a team that had real Final Four potential.

Blaming this all on a rogue staff member and self-sacrificing s postseason was the best way for Louisville to try and save the banner.

5. Will this be the end for Pitino?: He’s been through two sex scandals at Louisville. He’s 64 years old. He is, in all likelihood, looking at a significant suspension in 2017-18. And he has a team that is good enough to make a run at a Final Four.

Use 2016-17 as a farewell tour and then get out of dodge before the repercussions start rolling in. Wouldn’t that be the best way for him to ride off into the sunset?