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.

North Carolina gets commitment from four-star 2020 forward

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North Carolina has its first piece in its 2020 recruiting class.

Day’Ron Sharpe, a 6-foot-9 forward, committed to the Tar Heels on Sunday, according to multiple reports.

The Winterville, N.C. native picked Roy Williams’ in-state program over offers from Florida, Georgetown and Virginia, among others, after a second visit to Chapel Hill recently.

“We weren’t expecting it, and it kind of came out of the blue,” his father, Derrick Sharpe, told 247 Sports about the commitment. “He told coach Williams and coach was just really excited about it.”

Sharpe averaged 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game during his sophomore season.

“He’s a very multi-talented player,” Dwayne West, executive director of the Garner Road Bulldogs told the Raleigh News & Observer. “He does several things very well at a high rate. He can obviously score the ball around the basket, has a solid shot and is actually a very good playmaker. Handles the ball very well.”

Sharpe is a four-star, consensus top-75 player in the 2020 class. Williams also has one commit in the 2019 class, top-50 point guard Jeremiah Francis, who, like Sharpe, committed to the Tar Heels the summer before his junior season.

Former Western Michigan basketball player cleared of murder

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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — A jury has acquitted a former Western Michigan basketball player of murder in the shooting death of a fellow student but convicted him of armed robbery and a weapons charge.

The Kalamazoo County jury deliberated two days before returning the verdict for Joeviair Kennedy. He faces a possible life sentence when he’s sentenced July 16.

Nineteen-year-old Jacob Jones was killed near the campus on Dec. 8, 2016.

Co-defendant Jordan Waire of Muskegon was convicted last month of felony murder, armed robbery and weapons charges.

Prosecutors said it was Waire who shot Jones. Kennedy has said they took marijuana and about $25.

Kennedy’s attorney, Eusebio Solis, said his client agreed to the robbery but not the killing.

Kennedy was arrested in 2016 at the start of his second basketball season.

Kansas, Missouri to play alumni game for charity

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Kansas and Missouri are putting their differences aside for charity.

Kareem Rush, a former Missouri Tiger and the brother of Brandon Rush, a former Kansas Jayhawk, is organizing a game called “Rivarly Renewed“, which will pit alumni from Missouri against alumni from KU.

On July 28th, the two teams will face-off in a game where the proceeds will go towards benefitting the Boys and Girls Club as well as Kareem Rush’s “Rush Forward Foundation”.

It’s also a chance for the Tigers and the Jayhawks to reignite a rivalry that has been dormant since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, although they did play a scrimmage prior to the start of last season. There is no lack of hatred between those two fan bases and any chance they get to square off is a good thing.

There should also be some big names involved. According to the Kansas City Star, Mario Chalmers, Cole Aldrich, Drew Gooden, Kim English, Ricky Paulding and Marcus Denmon are among the players that will be participating.

I love it.

Can we make sure that Bill Self is invited so that he can get convinced to play the Tigers in a non-conference game?

Doppelgangers Grayson Allen, Ted Cruz finally meet

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Ever since Grayson Allen burst onto the national scene during the 2015 Final Four, the former Duke star has been called a Ted Cruz lookalike.

That, frankly, is not exactly a compliment, and it is a comparison that Allen initially bristled at, but now that his college career, Allen seems to be embracing the long-running joke.

We know that because Allen met Cruz this weekend as he helped the senator from Texas beat Jimmy Kimmel in a game of one-on-one:

The actually game won’t be broadcast until Monday night so we won’t know exactly how Cruz won or what Allen did to help, but Cruz did beat Kimmel 11-9.

We will get getting our answers this evening.

2018 NBA Draft: What top ten picks are the most likely to be busts?

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The 2018 NBA Draft is loaded with top-end talent and potential future all-stars.

The fascinating thing about this group in the top ten is that you can make a solid case that most of these guys could become stars.

On the flipside, all of them also have some kind of glaring weakness.

Deandre Ayton is likely going No. 1 overall and there is a healthy contingent of draft analysts and skeptics who point to his lack of defensive presence as a 7-footer.

Some of these same detractors also believe the NBA is continually going smaller — meaning giants like Ayton will get played off the floor by certain small-ball lineups like the Golden State Warriors just did to some teams during another title run.

That’s just one example.

Going down the list of top-ten prospects and you can point to a lot of potential flaws that could lead to downfalls. But here are two top-ten prospects who could wind up being busts.

MICHAEL PORTER JR.

Before his freshman season at Missouri, I thought Michael Porter Jr. was going to put up monster numbers and be a Player of the Year candidate. His top-five status in the 2018 NBA Draft appeared to be safe. After a decorated high school career in which he destroyed most challengers and played well on the international stage with USA Basketball, Porter looked like he could be a jumbo scoring wing at the game’s highest level.

Then the back and hip issues began.

Porter only played in three games during his lone season with the Tigers — including two uninspiring postseason efforts in which he couldn’t get his shot to fall while trying to prove that he was healthy. And now it feels like there are a million questions about MPJ and his health.

During the NBA Draft process, Porter has cancelled and rescheduled pro days, kept medical records private for long lengths of time and given plenty of teams pause as to whether or not he is truly healthy. If Porter’s back and hip stay as a lingering issue then it changes who he is as a basketball player. Already a bit rigid, with hips that aren’t particularly fluid, Porter could have trouble moving laterally in an increasingly quick and nimble league that is only getting smaller.

Porter’s jumper also uses his whole body to elevate. It didn’t look nearly the same during those March games where he tried to gut it out. And Porter has been such a gifted scorer during his high school career that he’s never had to worry about passing or making others around him better.

Some have also questioned Porter’s ego and his ability to be a willing teammate — which are legitimate questions in a league that often sees its stars feud with others and move on to new teams.

Again, if Porter is fully healthy and ready to go, he could be a double-double threat on the wing and a 20-point per game scorer. But if Porter isn’t healthy? Some team is taking a big risk on not only taking an injured player but passing on a talented healthy player who could morph into an all-star.

(John Weast/Getty Images)

TRAE YOUNG

Perhaps the most fascinating prospect in the draft because of his insane range and overall offensive ability, Young is going to be one of the names to watch on draft night.

Some mock drafts feel he’s a top-three talent, or even the best prospect overall because of his new-age ability to pull-up and hit threes from 30 feet away. Others feel like he’s a potential defensive liability who doesn’t necessarily play winning basketball all the time because of his shot selection and high number of turnovers.

While Young could be a monster steal for some team hoping to get the next Steph Curry, those comparisons are also going to be dangerous, while likely following Young the rest of this career.

For Young, it could be all about fit and who winds up taking him.

When Young was in high school, he was at his best when he had elite talent around him. Michael Porter Jr. was the go-to scorer on a MoKan team that won the Nike Peach Jam. Young also looked solid during stretches with USA Basketball when he had tons of weapons around him.

Once teams in the Big 12 figured out his individual offensive tendencies after a hot start last season, they forced him into being a playmaker and the Sooners struggled to win games. Of course, the lack of talent around him doesn’t fall on Young, who didn’t recruit his teammates at Oklahoma. But what happens if Young falls to a dysfunctional franchise like the Orlando Magic? He’ll be expected to be a savior right away with minimal help — while also having to overcome glaring deficiencies like perimeter defense and a high number of turnovers.

And how do you think NBA players are going to react to the task of guarding Young? There’s an old Dream Team story about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen practically fighting so they could defend future Chicago Bulls teammate Toni Kukoc one-on-one during the ’92 Olympics. They had heard about the hype surrounding Kukoc, even though he had never played in an NBA game.

After being a national media darling much of last season, Young is going to get a lot of strong one-on-one defenders who are hungry to slow him down. Game plans will revolve around limiting Young’s touches and ability to launch shots. Teams and veteran players are going to do everything they can to frustrate Young and make life tough.

Young is talented and skilled enough to make all of these questions go away. He’s a unique talent who could very well end up being worthy of all of the hype. But he’s going to need some help reaching his full potential, and some of those things are out of his control.