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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.

South Dakota State gets two commits

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Tuesday was a busy and productive one for South Dakota State on the recruiting trail.

The Jackrabbits secured two 2017 commitments from the state of Wisconsin in Ryan Krueger and Alex Arians, a source tells NBCSports.com.

Krueger is a 6-foot-5 wing player from New London, Wisc. while Arians is a 6-foot-4 guard from Madison, Wisc., who also held an offer from Wright State, which is coached by former SDSU coach Scott Nagy. Both players spend their summers playing for the Wisconsin Swing grassroots program.

The pair make it a trio of commits for the Jackrabbits in 2017 with another Wisconsinite, Alou Dillon, pledging to first-year Jackrabbits coach T.J. Otzelberger, himself a Wisconsin native, earlier this summer.

South Dakota State went 26-8 last year and the bulk of the team that made the NCAA tournament last year, including sophomore Mike Daum, who led the team in scoring and rebounding as a freshman.

Incoming Gator freshman ineligible for upcoming season

Mike White
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Florida will need to wait a year before seeing 6-foot-11 recruit Gorjok Gak playing games for the Gators.

The NCAA ruled that the incoming freshman will be able to enroll at Florida this year and practice with the team, but will be ineligible for games this season, the school announced Tuesday.

Should he meet all his progress marks during his freshman year, he’ll have three seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2017-18.

Gak’s eligibility issue centered on his playing games during his postgraduate year at Victory Rock Prep, according to his coach there.

“Following his graduate year from Australia, he was supposed to play from December to December,” Loren Jackson told the Gainesville Sun, “but instead played from December until the following May.”

Gak originally signed with Oklahoma State, but de-committed following Travis Ford’s firing in Stillwater this past spring. Gak averaged 13.8 points and 9.3 rebounds last season at Victory Rock in Bradenton, Fla.

Florida went 21-15 last season under first-year coach Mike White.

Video: Coach K talks Team USA with Dan Patrick

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Team USA has blown through its competition in its first two exhibition games ahead of next month’s Olympics in Rio De Janeiro with wins over Argentina and China by a combined a combined 96 points.

Tonight, they’ll have a rematch against China, which they defeated 106-57 on Sunday, but it will also serve as the unofficial debut of Kevin Durant in front of his new hometown fans with the game taking place at the home of the Golden State Warriors, Oracle Arena, in Oakland.

“Excited for Kevin tonight to make his debut in front of the Golden State fans,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said Tuesday on the Dan Patrick Show. “He got a great reception (Monday) at a function. He was, as he should be, warmly welcomed.”

The team has been together since July 18 in the run-up to its first Olympic contest on Aug. 6 against China. For Krzyzewski, a couple of players have made an impression already.

“You see these guys on TV,” the Duke coach said, “but I don’t get a chance to see them in person. (Clipper) DeAndre Jordan is such a good player. A great athlete, a great guy. To see him run, defend, holy mackerel. He’ s really good.

“I haven’t seen Paul George in two years when he had that horrific (leg) injury in Las Vegas at one of our camps, and he’s so darn good. On defense, tremendous.”

It’s on the defensive side of the floor that Coach K believes his team can really make its mark even with the incredible collection of offensive talent the roster has.

“We’re very athletic so defensively we could be a very good defensive team,” he said. “We’ve shown a willingness to want to do that in the first two games.”

As usual, Team USA is the prohibitive favorite to bring back gold for the third consecutive Olympics, which will be Coach K’s last at the helm after taking over after the 2004 bronze medal debacle.

“I’m excited about the team,” he said. “It’s a short time. to see our guys working so hard and they get along so well, I’m excited about the team we might be in Rio. We’ll use tonight to get a little bit better.

“I kind of have the blinders on. You only have a short time. It’s a little over a month, and we want to win the gold medal in Rio.”

Rose’s transfer to BYU becomes official

Ge'Lawn Guyn, L.J. Rose
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His commitment came more than a month ago, but L.J. Rose’s transfer to BYU became official Tuesday.

The former Houston guard was officially announced as an immediately-eligible graduate transfer by BYU on Tuesday. He’ll bring much needed help to a Cougars backcourt that lost Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer to graduation and Jordan Chatman and Jack Toolson to transfers.

“L.J. will add great experience and talent to our guard line,” BYU coach Dave Rose said in a statement released by BYU. “We’re excited about the leadership he will bring on the court and in the locker room. He will make us a deeper and more versatile team.”

As a junior, L.J. Rose averaged 9.8 points and 5.3 assists, but a foot injury limited him to just two games last season and allowed him to receive a medical redshirt and the opportunity to be a graduate transfer for his final collegiate season. He’ll be a big part of BYU’s attempt to build on last year’s 26-11 season as a former top-100 recruit, who began his career at Baylor, on a team in need of an infusion of talent after absorbing the losses from last year’s roster.

His father, Lynden, Sr., was a teammate of BYU coach Dave Rose at Houston during the program’s Phi Slama Jama era.

UCLA loses key forward to professional ranks

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 02:  Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks steals the ball from Jonah Bolden #43 of the UCLA Bruins during a 76-68 Ducks win at Pauley Pavilion on March 2, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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UCLA announced on Tuesday afternoon that Jonah Bolden will be forgoing his college eligibility to turn professional.

“Jonah Bolden has informed the coaching staff that he has opted to play professionally this season,” the release said.

Bolden is a versatile, 6-foot-10 forward with some NBA potential. In his only season playing with the Bruins, he averaged 4.6 points and 4.8 boards while starting 11 games. His ability on the defensive end of the floor was something the UCLA staff was counting on this season.

A sophomore this past season, Bolden was ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA as a freshman, meaning that he was allowed to be on scholarship and in class but could not play during the 2014-15 season.

He had two seasons of eligibility remaining. Without Bolden, T.J Leaf will likely be counted on to play more minutes at the four.