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.

NCAA denies extra-year request by NC State guard Henderson

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The NCAA has denied North Carolina State guard Terry Henderson’s request for another year of eligibility.

Henderson announced the decision Friday in a statement issued by the school.

The Raleigh native played two seasons at West Virginia before transferring to N.C. State and redshirting in 2014-15. He played for only 7 minutes of the following season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.

As a redshirt senior in 2016-17, he was the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.8 points per game and made a team-best 78 3-pointers.

Henderson called it “an honor and privilege” to play in his hometown.

SMU gets transfer in Georgetown’s Akoy Agau

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SMU pulled in a frontcourt player in Georgetown transfer Akoy Agau, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com. Agau is immediately eligible for next season as a graduate transfer.

The 6-foot-8 Agau started his career at Louisville before transferring to Georgetown after one season. Spending two seasons with the Hoyas, Agau was limited to 11 minutes in his first season due to injuries. He averaged 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last season.

Coming out of high school, Agau was a four-star prospect but he’s never lived up to that billing in-part because of injuries. Now, Agau gets one more chance to make a difference as he’s hoping to help replace some departed pieces like Ben Moore and Semi Ojeleye.

South Carolina loses big man Sedee Keita to transfer

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South Carolina big man Sedee Keita will transfer from the program, he announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-9 Keita was once regarded as a top-100 national prospect in the Class of 2016, but he never found consistent minutes with the Gamecocks for last season’s Final Four team.

Keita appeared in 29 games and averaged 1.1 points and 2.0 rebounds per game while shooting 27 percent from the field.

A native of Philadelphia, Keita will have to sit out next season before getting three more seasons of eligibility.

Although Keita failed to make an impact during his only season at South Carolina, he’ll be a coveted transfer thanks to his size and upside.

Mississippi State losing two to transfer

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Mississippi State will lose two players to transfer as freshmen Mario Kegler and Eli Wright are leaving the program.

Both Kegler and Wright were four-star prospects coming out of high school as they were apart of a six-man recruiting class that is supposed to be a major foundation for Ben Howland’s future with the Bulldogs.

The 6-foot-7 Kegler was Mississippi State’s third-leading scorer last season as he averaged 9.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Kegler should command some quality schools on the transfer market, especially since he’ll still have three more years of eligibility after sitting out next season due to NCAA transfer regulations. Kegler’s loss is also notable for Mississippi State because it is the second consecutive offseason that Howland lost a top-100, in-state product to transfer after only one season after Malik Newman left for Kansas.

Wright, a 6-foot-4 guard, was never able to find consistent minutes as he was already behind underclass perimeter options like Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters and Tyson Carter last season. With Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary’s four-star brother, also joining the Bulldogs next season, the writing was likely on the wall that Wright wasn’t going to earn significant playing time.

 

N.C. State lands second transfer of day with Utah’s Devon Daniels

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A big recruiting day for N.C. State continued on Saturday afternoon as Utah transfer and guard Devon Daniels pledged to the Wolfpack.

Earlier in the day, N.C. State and new head coach Kevin Keatts landed another quality transfer in UNC Wilmington guard C.J. Bryce.

The 6-foot-5 Daniels just finished his freshman season with the Utes in which he put up 9.9 points 4.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range. Just like Bryce, Daniels will have to sit out the 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer regulations before he has three more seasons of eligibility.

N.C. State now has two potential starters on the perimeter for the 2018-19 season with the addition of Bryce and Daniels as it will be interesting to see what kind of talent the Wolfpack can get around them.