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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.

VIDEO: Tom Izzo’s touching senior day tribute to Eron Harris

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Eron Harris #14 of the Michigan State Spartans kisses the midcourt logo on senior day during the second half of the college basketball game against the Wisconsin Badgers at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
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Eron Harris suffered a career-ending knee injury in a game at Purdue earlier this month, meaning that he would not be able to take the floor for his Senior Day.

Tom Izzo made sure to rectify that, as he called a timeout with just 12 seconds left in Michigan State’s win over No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday, giving Harris a chance to go out to the center of the court, get a standing ovation and give the Spartan logo a smooch.

He was also greeted by the Wisconsin team. All around great moment:

Nick Ward-led Michigan State beats No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Nick Ward #44 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates during a game against the Wisconsin Badgers in the second half at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Nick Ward had 22 points and nine rebounds, Miles Bridges had 17 points and Matt McQuaid added a season-high 15 to help Michigan State beat No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74 on Sunday.

The Spartans (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten) have won six of their last eight games, moving them into a third-place tie in the conference and perhaps sealing their spot in a 20th straight NCAA Tournament.

The Badgers (22-7, 11-5) have lost four of five and lost a chance to pull into a first-place tie with No. 14 Purdue.

Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes scored 22 points, Bronson Koenig had 17 and Zak Showalter added 15. Ethan Happ fouled out with eight points, more than six points below his average for the Badgers.

Michigan State went on an 11-1 run midway through the second half, building a 12-point lead that it was able to maintain unlike a big lead in the first half.

In the first half, the Spartans led 36-23 only to allow the Badgers to come back with a 15-4 run to pull within a point at halftime.

Michigan State’s Cassius Winston had 10 points and eight assists and Joshua Langford had nine points.

In the last game of the season at Breslin Center, senior guard Eron Harris checked in late in the game a little more than a week after he had a season-ending knee injury. Harris, with a brace on his right knee, went to center court and kissed the Spartan logo to follow a senior tradition Shawn Respert started in 1995.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been shooting poorly and it is catching up with them. They were held to 43.1 percent shooting against Michigan State, a ninth straight game of connecting on 44 percent or fewer of their shots. They made 13 of 25 free throws at Michigan State after shooting 67 and 57 percent from the line the previous two games.

Michigan State: The Spartans are surging at the right time and are gaining confidence perhaps allowing them to position themselves for better seeding at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

POLL IMPLICATONS

With Wisconsin’s losses at Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers will likely plummet from No. 16 in The Associated Press poll on Monday.

UP NEXT

Wisconsin: The Badgers end the regular season at home, hosting Iowa on Thursday night and Minnesota on Sunday.

Michigan State: The Spartans close on the road, playing Illinois on Wednesday night and No. 24 Maryland on Saturday.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Update: Creighton’s Watson turns himself into police

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 31: Injured guard Maurice Watson Jr. of the Creighton Bluejays looks on during the game against the Butler Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse on January 31, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Creighton defeated Butler 76-67. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Update: Later Sunday, Watson turned himself into the Douglas County Jail, a law enforcement official told the Omaha World-Herald. Watson’s attorney told the paper that Watson was driving back to Omaha from his native Philadelphia and was slowed by the snowstorm that hit parts of the country this week.

Law enforcement has been unable to arrest Creighton guard Maurice Watson since a warrant for his arrest on the charge first-degree sexual assault was issued last week, according to police.

“The U.S. Marshals Service and the Omaha Police Fugitive Unit continue to look for Mr. Watson,” Omaha Police said in a statement Sunday. “At this point in time, Mr. Watson is dodging law enforcement efforts to arrest him.

“Until he is located and arrested by law enforcement, or turns himself in, the entire Douglas County Court system is operating off of Mr. Watson’s time frame.

“Neither OPD nor the Douglas County Attorney’s Office is part of any specific arrangements for Mr. Watson to turn himself in.”

Watson was accused by a 19-year-old acquaintance, who reportedly is also a Creighton student, of sexual assault in the bathroom of an Omaha residence around 3 a.m. on Feb. 4. A report was filed later that day.

The point guard was in the midst of a banner season for the Bluejays before he tore his ACL in January, which ended his collegiate career. Creighton announced on Feb. 13 he was suspended from the team and not allowed to participate in senior night act due to  “alleged actions that are contrary to university policies and core values.”

The warrant for his arrest was issued Thursday.

 

Seventh-ranked Louisville dominates Syracuse

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The hint arrived early that Louisville might be no kind of matchup for Syracuse when the Cardinals jumped out to a quick 11-2 lead. The Orange, though, appeared to steady and seemed intent on delivering an interesting Sunday afternoon and a maybe another resume-changing win after beating Duke earlier in the week as the roared back to take a lead.

Everyone should have taken the early hint.

Louisville used a 21-4 first-half run to gain separation and never looked back as the Cardinals dominated Syracuse, 88-68, on Saturday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center.

The win was the fourth in five games for Louisville, which shot 56.9 percent from the floor and held the Orange to 35.7 percent shooting.

Donovan Mitchell was sensational, going for 25 points on 9 of 16 shooting, including 6 of 10 from deep, while also grabbing five rebounds and dishing out four assists. It was his third-straight game with at least 20 points.  He also had an absolutely dynamic one-handed alley-oop late that was just fantastic.

The Cardinals showed no ill effects of a hangover stemming from the loss earlier this week at North Carolina, but instead it was as dominant a performance as they’ve had in weeks.

On the losing side of the ledger are the Orange, who looked to be building some momentum after a three-game losing streak by beating Duke on Wednesday. Then, the Blue Devils went and lost to Miami and Syracuse just got smashed by another ACC contender. That doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.

For Syracuse, it looks destined to spend another Selection Sunday sweating, though there’s certainly enough time for it to go either way. The Orange can really only hurt themselves until the ACC tournament with Georgia Tech heading to the Carrier Dome this week. That’s a game Syracuse will need to win, lest they really want the pressure ratcheted up in Brooklyn.

A big part of the issue for Syracuse pinning its hopes on the ACC tournament is its total lack of depth. Tyler Lydon and Andrew White both went at least 40 minutes for the 11- and 10-straight games, respectively. Syracuse played seven and got 28 minutes total from its bench.

With a few days typically between days, that’s pretty sustainable for the regular season, but those minutes are sure to weigh on players going on back-to-back (and maybe longer) days.

#POSTERIZED: Donovan Mitchell caps Cards win with an oop

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 19:  Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Louisville Cardinals reacts after making a three point shot to end the first half against the Clemson Tigers at KFC YUM! Center on January 19, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Louisville used a huge first-half run to pull away from Syracuse, and a Donovan Mitchell slam to put the icing on the cake.

The Cardinals sophomore caught a pass one-handed and seamlessly threw it home to deliver the signature moment of Louisville’s 88-68 win over the Orange on Saturday