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: Zion Williamson throws down a vicious putback

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Zion Williamson made another highlight-reel play on Saturday outside of Atlanta as he threw down a vicious putback dunk at the Best of the South.

The five-star prospect has returned from a minor knee injury this spring to look like his old self in July as he’s entertained packed gyms of fans and college coaches the last two weeks.

The Class of 2018 star is currently regarded as the No. 3 overall prospect in the latest Rivals.com national rankings.

(h/t: Courtside Films)

Five-star 2018 point guard Darius Garland cuts list to six schools

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Five-star Class of 2018 point guard Darius Garland revealed the final six schools that he’s considering on Friday.

The N0. 12 overall prospect in the Class of 2018, according to Rivals, the 6-foot-0 Garland is one of the top floor generals in the nation as he is still considering Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and Vanderbilt.

A native of Nashville, Garland is a potentially elite perimeter threat at the college level as he’s one of the more deadly three-point marksmen in the nation.

Garland spent this spring and summer playing with Bradley Beal Elite in the Nike EYBL as he averaged 16.8 points and 4.8 assists per game in the league this spring.

VIDEO: Kentucky’s John Calipari participates in the #DriveByDunkChallenge

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The #DriveByDunkChallenge is sweeping the nation on social media this summer.

Rules to participate are pretty simple:

  1. Drive around in your vehicle.
  2. Find a basketball hoop (or a basketball ring if you’re Ted Cruz) on a random driveway.
  3. Run out of your car and dunk on that random hoop while a friend films.
  4. Run back to your car and drive away.

Let Anthony Davis show you how it works:

Pretty simple, right?

The #DriveByDunkChallenge isn’t raising money or awareness for ALS like the #IceBucketChallenge did three years ago, but it’s something harmless and fun to do to pass the time during the dog days of summer.

Sensing an opportunity to join an Internet craze, while also following in the footsteps of his former player Kentucky star, Wildcats head coach John Calipari got involved with his own dunk late Friday night.

And his video is much funnier than I thought it would be.

While most #DriveByDunkChallenge videos are done by healthy and spry teenagers who are cruising neighborhoods during the day, Calipari, and his hip replacement, got in on the fun with a late-night dunk.

I love that Calipari ditched the ball behind his back while running back to the car after the dunk.

Most people who participate in the challenge usually have their own ball and keep it with them through completion. But Calipari either picked up a random ball in the driveway or just he lost the handle with his own ball and had a turnover.

The next time Calipari goes hard on one of his point guards for losing control and playing too fast, remember this moment.

Creighton’s Khyri Thomas posterizes defender

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Creighton rising junior wing Khyri Thomas, like several of his teammates, are taking part in the Omaha Summer League this offseason.

On Thursday night, the 6-foot-3, 205-lb. Thomas eviscerated a defender with a one-handed posterization.

Thomas is coming off a breakout sophomore campaign for the Bluejays. He started all 35 games, averaging 12.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Aside from the increase in offensive production, Thomas served as one of the top defenders in the Big East. He shared the Big East Defensive Player of the Year Award with Villanova’s Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges.

Zion Williamson throws down 360 windmill dunk

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Zion Williamson added another jaw-dropping dunk in the layup lines on the first night of the second live evaluation period.

Williamson and his SC Supreme team took on Each 1 Teach 1 at the Hoopseen Best of the South at the LakePoint Sporting Community in greater Atlanta.

The 6-foot-7 power forward threw down a 360 windmill dunk during his pregame routines.

Each 1 Teach 1 would pick up a 70-67 victory over SC Supreme. Williamson would end with a monster stat line of 37 points and seven rebounds.