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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.

Bobby Hurley ridicules his Arizona State team’s effort in loss

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 16:  Head coach Bobby Hurley of the Arizona State Sun Devils yells to his players during their game against the UNLV Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center on December 16, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Arizona State won 66-56.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — A totally forgettable Arizona State performance in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday night led to some truly unforgettable comments from head coach Bobby Hurley.

Hurley, who has a reputation for having something of a temper, teed off on his team in the press conference after the game, criticizing them as harshly as you’ll ever see a coach do in public. He called them “embarrassing” and the performance “disturbing”.

“I thought we competed for about eight minutes out of 40,” Hurley said. The Sun Devils were down 47-21 at the half, by as many as 42 points in the second half and eventually lost 97-64 to a Purdue team that scored 19 first half points against Louisville exactly a week ago. “It’s unfortunate that our team didn’t even come close to the energy that Jimmy V had in his life and his passion. We had no passion for playing. We did a disservice to this game and this event and what he represented.”

It’s not often that you see a coach publicly ridicule players like that. Humiliation isn’t always the best motivating tactic. Oftentimes, it’s the easiest way to lose a locker room.

Hurley wasn’t done.

“For a city that’s a blue-collar city and an arena that has so much tradition and so many good players that have played on this court — to look like that, it was embarrassing,” he said. “And then the cause, such a great cause that we’re playing for tonight. Did my players play as hard as the people that are going through what they go through in cancer, as families go through in their personal situations? I don’t think so.”

Oh, there’s more.

“That was really disturbing, how we competed,” Hurley said. “It’s not a reflection of my personality or the teams I’ve coached in the past, so we have to make some changes.”

For better or worse, this is the second time in Hurley’s tenure with Arizona State that he’s made national headlines. Last season, he went viral during a theatrical ejection in an Arizona State loss against in-state rival Arizona.

Hurley is trying to make Arizona State relevant, which is why he’s scheduling games against anyone and everyone in an effort to get his brand on national television.

And he’s succeeded in a sense.

After this rant, you’ll see his name on every sports website this morning.

I’m not so sure that’s the best way to build recruiting momentum.

CBT Podcast: Recapping Kentucky-UCLA, Player of the Year ranks, Cuse-UConn

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In the latest episode of the NBCSports.com College Basketball Talk podcast, I was joined by my former colleague Raphielle Johnson to discuss everything from Kentucky-UCLA to Syracuse-UConn to who deserves to be the Player of the Year after the first month of the season.

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You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

Return on Investment: Dixon era already paying dividends for TCU

Pittsburgh v Wichita State
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jaylen Fisher was in demand.

Not only is the Tennessee native talented, rated by most services as a four-star recruit, he suddenly became available when players of his caliber are in short supply, having decommitted from UNLV last spring.

The likes of Baylor, Ohio State, Florida and UConn were all interested. So, too, was TCU.

While rarely a player for prospects of Fisher’s pedigree, the Horned Frogs had a strong recruiting pitch, starting with a new coach, Jamie Dixon, taking over for his alma mater after 11 NCAA tournaments in 13 years at Pitt, plus the assistant who got him to commit to UNLV, Ryan Miller, joining the staff.

TCU, though, had a perception problem.

“Last year they didn’t charter (to away games),” Dixon told NBCSports.com in October, “and everybody else chartered.

“Everybody was using it against us in the conference, saying TCU doesn’t charter to games. I didn’t know that because they had told me we were going to charter to every game. So we had to address that and get that out there.”

Such is life at a place that has long prioritized football and baseball, with winter being the time before spring football, not basketball season.

That, though, may be changing.

TCU is investing in basketball, from chartered flights, to a new arena to Dixon himself. The race is on to climb out of the Big 12 cellar, get to the program’s first NCAA tournament in nearly two decades and then win its first game there in three.

“We’re trying,” senior Karviar Shepherd said, “to make basketball a big thing.”

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 21: Head coach Trent Johnson of the TCU Horned Frogs reacts during the second half of the game against the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse on February 21, 2015 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Since bolting the Mountain West for Big 12 to pursue football glory, basketball has been a disaster for TCU.

The Frogs have won eight conference games in four years, going 0-for-2014 with 18 league losses that season. The highwater mark came in 2015, when they went 4-14 and finished a game ahead of last. They’ve finished last in attendance every year, averaging fewer than 5,000 fans per game.

“I came in knowing that it was going to be that way, kind of,” Shepherd, a four-star recruit in 2013, said. “I didn’t know it was going to be that intense, but it happened.”

Losses were only part of the ignominy for the Horned Frogs.

The school’s largest public pronouncement of caring about basketball also caused the program to appear its most unimportant.

They spent 2014-15 playing in a high school gym.

Certainly, it was an ends justify the means situation as TCU was displaced by a $72 million renovation to the outdated Daniel-Meyer Coliseum (now Schollmaier Arena).

But a season’s worth of games at the Wilkerson-Greines Athletic Center, home of the Fort Worth Independent School District, was no picnic.

“Playing at the high school was more like an away game,” Shepherd said. “We didn’t have that much of a crowd come in.

“It was kind of compact, orange all over. We had to get through it.”

TCU's Jalen Fisher, left scrambles for a loose basketball against Washington's Markelle Fultz during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, No. 30, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Bob Haynes/Star-Telegram via AP)
Bob Haynes/Star-Telegram via AP

The Horned Frogs now hope the growing pains have been worth it.

They spent last year in the Schollmaier Arena, a modern facility that helps keep pace with the rest of the league. The losses eventually proved too much for the school to stay with Trent Johnson, but their decision to act aggressively with his dismissal allowed them to pursue Dixon, who not only won at the highest levels at Pitt but graduated from TCU in 1987 after winning back-to-back Southwest Conference titles.

“Losing a coach that’s been with you for three years, any coach, that’s hard to do,” Shepherd said. “(Dixon) came in with a positive attitude, which helped us and guided us in to what he wanted to do.”

Dixon status as not only an alum, but one with connections to one of the few successful eras of TCU basketball is something that makes him uniquely qualified to turn the Frogs from cellar-dwellers to contenders.

“I think it gives more passion,” Shepherd said. “It’s TCU for TCU. He has that type of thing going on. He wants to do the best for his community, which is TCU.”

Dixon’s degree makes for a nice recruiting pitch, too.

“I think it brings something different,” he said. “Not many coaches out there are coaching at the place they went to school. I made the choice to come there. I had choices to be at other great places, other great programs, move to other great places and I think I‘m recognizing it more.

“I don’t think I saw it initially but now that I’ve been at it and I’ve seen and I’ve looked around, you can sell, you can talk about a different experience than the other coaches can. We talk about once you go to TCU, it’s not a four-year decision, it’s a decision for life.

“There’s no better example than myself.”

FILE - In this March 22,, 2016, file photo, TCU's new men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon acknowledges the crowds response as he was introduced during an NCAA college basketball news conference, in Fort Worth, Texas. Dixon’s Horned Frogs have started 4-0 in his first season but have gone 8-64 in Big 12 play over the past four years. (Ron T. Ennis/Star-Telegram via AP, File)
Ron T. Ennis/Star-Telegram via AP, File

TCU’s investment in basketball appears to be initially paying off. The Frogs are 8-0 heading into tonight’s matchup with their crosstown counterpart, SMU, tonight. The schedule they’ve conquered to remain unbeaten is no Goliath, but when you’ve spent as much time as TCU has with that zero on the front end of your record, strength of schedule is of little consequence, at least at this point.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Dixon said at Big 12 media day before the season. “The administration is expressing that and there’s some things that I have to bring to their attention, too as well.

“And then there’s things that are happening over time. Next year there’s going to be something that’s hot that everybody’s going to do and you’ve got to stay up with that. That’s what I learned at Pitt. You’ve got to stay up with the times and advantages because it’s a war out there.”

The real war is always on the recruiting trail, where it looks as though TCU is making up ground in the talent-rich Lone Star State. Kevin Samuel, a four-star center from Houston, and R.J. Nembhard, a four-star guard from right outside Dallas, are both signed for the 2017 class.

The Horned Frogs may be seeing early returns, but their true return on investment won’t be known for some time. TCU, even with a fast start, wouldn’t appear to be on an NCAA tournament track this season. Building a program, especially one with little previous historical tradition and playing in one of the country’s toughest league, takes time.

“You don’t want to say, that’s how we did it at Pitt. You don’t want to say that every sentence,” Dixon said, “but we’ve had experience building something from nothing. That’s the reality of it at Pitt. We need to do that.”

Part of that begins with changing perception. An 8-0 start – and potentially a win against SMU – would helps in that department. Dixon, though, has already begun to change the way TCU is thought of.

Before they got Samuel and Nembhard, the Horned Frogs got Fisher, getting out in front of any aircraft-related negative recruiting.

“When you’re picked 10th and you finish at the bottom,” Dixon said, “we’re easier to take shots at. They can find them and people are more apt to believe it too.”

So are the darkest days now behind TCU?

“The losses that we had,” Shepherd said, “it built character within each player, just knowing where we came from, where we want to be and where we’re going.

“It builds character.”

With the character secure, it’s now on Dixon and TCU to build a program.

Washington’s one season with Markelle Fultz looks destined to end in obscurity

Markelle Fultz, via UW Athletics
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The hardest thing to do at a Power 5 school is to lose consistently, to put together an extended run of underwhelming, disappointing seasons without having to find new employment.

Only three of the 65 head coaches employed at Power 5 schools have missed five straight NCAA tournaments at their current job. Two of those three are basketball coaches at football schools, Penn State’s Pat Chambers and Clemson’s Brad Brownell. Chambers has built enough recruiting momentum in Philly that the argument can be made that his program is trending up; at least that’s the pitch that earned him a sixth-year. Brownell made the tournament his first season with the Tigers, and with Jaron Blossomgame back this season and Elijah Thomas coming eligible in December, this group will be the best team he’s had since then.

The third member of that ignominious group isn’t like the others.

Both Chambers and Brownell have coached a single NBA player at their current gig – Tim Frazier and K.J. McDaniels, respectively – and neither of them were first round picks.

Washington’s Lorenzo Romar has had five first round picks in the last five years.

None of them have played in the NCAA tournament, and without a win over No. 8 Gonzaga on Wednesday night, there’s a very real chance that Markelle Fultz, the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, will find himself watching the NCAA tournament on television as well.


As of today, Washington is 4-3 this season. They lost to Yale at home in their season-opener. They lost a pair of games to TCU – one on a neutral court, one on the road – and while the Horned Frogs are currently undefeated this season, they haven’t really landed a win that would let us know just how good they actually are.

After Wednesday, the Huskies won’t get another chance against a real team until Pac-12 play, and that could end up being a real problem.

A loss tonight puts them at 4-4 on the season and ensures that they will not have a quality non-conference win on their résumé, which wouldn’t be a huge issue if we could ensure that neither Yale nor TCU would eventually show up as a bad loss. But the other side of it is that the Pac-12 isn’t quite as loaded as we expected it to be. Oregon has fizzled out of the gate, failing to impress during non-conference play, while Arizona’s one relevant win – Michigan State – looks like it is anything but a marquee victory. UCLA is carrying the torch for the league.

Put another way, we’re looking at a situation where, for the second straight season, the best NBA prospect in college basketball will end up missing the NCAA tournament. Last year, the Ben Simmons-to-LSU experiment started slowly and ended as a train wreck, with the team opting not to accept a bid to the NIT.

How did this go so wrong?

RELATEDHow ‘keeping it in the family’ led Michael Porter Jr. to Washington

TUCSON, AZ - JANUARY 14: Head coach Lorenzo Romar of the Washington Huskies gestures during the first half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on January 14, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona. The Arizona Wildcats beat the Washington Huskies 99-67. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
Lorenzo Romar (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

There are a couple reasons:

1. Washington just does not have the talent around Markelle Fultz that Romar needed, and it’s not entirely his fault. Marquese Chriss and DeJounte Murray, who both ended up being first round picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, were one-and-done players that no one expected to head to the NBA when they did. Chriss was a borderline top 50 recruit coming out of high school. Murray was closer to the top 30, but you’d be lying if you said you thought he was going to be able to leave school after one season with a guaranteed contract.

What’s left is a crop of players that are just OK. David Crisp is a fine player but isn’t necessarily a guy you want as your second option at the Pac-12 level. Malik Dime and Noah Dickerson are, at worst, serviceable high-major bigs. Matisse Thybulle hasn’t quite lived up to the hype that he had entering the season. Part of the reason that Romar is left with a roster bereft of high-level talent is a result of the way that he coaches.

Romar is going to play his most talented guys right away, said a person with knowledge of the way that Washington’s staff operates. It doesn’t matter if they are freshmen or seniors, he’s going to let his best players do what they can do. If that comes with a learning curve – Fultz isn’t going to get pulled for turnovers the same way that Chriss and Murray were allowed to play through their freshmen mistakes – then so be it. Compare that with a program like Wisconsin, where guys like Devin Harris and Frank Kaminsky, eventual top ten picks, were buried on the bench until they learned the system and earned the playing time. Even Bill Self has struggled with when to let his one-and-done stars play through their issues and when to hold them accountable.

Romar gives his talent a chance to showcase what they’re capable of, for better or worse. And, of late, it’s been the latter.

2. His teams don’t defend. “They were so ******* bad on defense. It was like they had never been coached,” a coach who has played the Huskies this season told NBCSports.com. “They had no plan.” The Huskies are entertaining to watch offensively because of how fast they play – they’re currently sixth in KenPom in tempo – but there isn’t much structure on that end and it comes at the expense of any kind of discipline on the defensive end.

That’s a by-product of giving his young guys freedom that they wouldn’t necessarily experience at other programs. It’s also a result of how he wants to play defensively. His best teams would get out and play a pressuring, half-court man-to-man defense, and with the new freedom of movement rules, that just doesn’t work. All Washington does is foul. They’ve been in the bottom 25% nationally in free throw rate the last two seasons. Chriss fouled out of 15 of the 34 games he played in college.

3. That environment isn’t necessarily the best for getting the most out of a guy like Fultz. For as talented as he is, Fultz still has some warts. He’s a slow-starter, a guy with a sleepy demeanor that has a habit of slowly growing into games. He’s a talented defender that doesn’t always play with the kind of effort on that end of the floor that he needs to. If he was from the west coast, he’d get criticized for having the same kind of “Cali-cool” that Lonzo Ball gets knocked for.

And it’s a shame, because Fultz really is an unbelievable talent.

But, at this point, it looks like he’ll be the unknown in this NBA Draft.

With the exception of Washington’s only game against Oregon and their second matchup with Arizona, every quality opponent that Washington plays will tip after 10:30 p.m. ET.

How many people are going to stay up that late to watch what could very well end up being a series of blowouts?


Lorenzo Romar is in a decidedly unique situation at Washington.

On the one hand, in the last five years, his teams have underperformed given the amount of talent that has come through Seattle. In 2011-2012, Washington won the Pac-12 regular season title but failed to get an at-large bid to the Big Dance with Terrence Ross, the No. 8 pick, and Tony Wroten, the No. 25 pick, on the roster. C.J. Wilcox, the No. 28 pick in the 2014 Draft, couldn’t get Washington into the dance either of the next two seasons, and this past year, Romar was NIT-bound despite having Marquese Chriss, the No. 8 pick, and DeJounte Murray, the No. 29 pick, on his roster. The only time in his Washington coaching tenure that he didn’t have a future first round pick on the roster was the 2014-15 season, and, in theory, that fact could change if current Gonzaga point guard and Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss gets drafted.

In 15 years with the Huskies, Romar has reached the tournament just six times, the Sweet 16 just three times and finished with fewer than 10 losses just three times despite a nine-year run where U-Dub finished top three in the Pac-12 seven times and won two regular season titles.

But he’s also been by far the best coach in the history of the program. The Huskies reached the Final Four in 1953, and in the nearly 50 years between that day and the day that Romar was hired, Washington reached just six NCAA tournaments and two Sweet 16s.

Washington fans have a right to be frustrated with the way his tenure has gone, but that frustration stems from the fact that Romar carried Washington to an unprecedented level of success.

But that’s in the past. Brandon Roy’s college career ended a decade ago. Isaiah Thomas was drafted in 2011.

So while there’s an outside chance that both Fultz and Michael Porter Jr., the star that Romar has committed in the Class of 2017, could end up being the No. 1 pick in their respective NBA Drafts, it may be more likely that, without a win on Wednesday night, Romar may never end up coaching the latter.

Coach K hopes to have Harry Giles back ‘before Christmas’

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 06:  Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils directs his team during their game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 88-80.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Duke’s freshman center Harry Giles II is close to returning to the game action, according to head coach Mike Krzyzewski, potentially as soon as Christmas.

“Harry’s participating,” Krzyzewski said, “he hasn’t had as much contact yet. We’re hoping before Christmas, those two games.”

Duke is playing UNLV in Vegas on Saturday, then after a nine-day break for finals, the Blue Devils get Tennessee State and Elon at home on the 19th and the 21st.

Giles warmed up with the Blue Devils on Tuesday night. Giles, who was long considered the top prospect in his class, has torn ACLs in both knees. He had a knee scope in October that has kept him out of action since.

“I don’t want to put a gun to his head, like, ‘You have to do it,'” Coach K said. “I want to see how he does during the exam period with a little more contact, before we go forward.”