Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Keifer Sykes always knew that he was talented at basketball but it took the offseason between his junior and senior seasons at John Marshall Metropolitan High School in Chicago to realize how much work it would take to succeed at the college level.
After a breakout junior season of high school basketball in which the point guard helped lead Marshall to a third-place finish in Illinois’ Class 3A, Sykes joined the Mac Irvin Fire in the Nike EYBL for the spring and summer. But instead of starting and shining in big moments like he was accustomed to doing during his junior year, Sykes was relegated to coming off of the bench.
It wasn’t like the demotion to the bench for Sykes was unwarranted. On paper, the Mac Irvin Fire that summer had one of the most loaded groups of high-major prospects assembled in grassroots basketball. The Fire had highly-touted players who eventually committed to DePaul (Macari Brooks, Jamee Crockett), Illinois (Myke Henry, Mike Shaw), Louisville (Wayne Blackshear), Ohio State (Sam Thompson) and Oregon (Bruce Barron) on the roster during the July live evaluation period and Sykes was a 5-foot-10 point guard garnering mid-major interest.
Playing with the Mac Irvin Fire in the EYBL humbled Sykes immensely and he knew he had to work incredibly hard to make a mark in college basketball, no matter what level he ended up at.
“I think that season is what humbled me the most,” Sykes said to NBCSports.com. “I was coming off of a good junior season of high school ball and I went into club basketball with a team of high-profile, high-Division I players on that circuit you see other guys like Austin Rivers and Brad Beal and it made me want to work.
“I might have been the best guy on my [high school] team, but it showed me there are other players better than me all across the world. It just humbled me and it had me in a position where I had to work out.”
Sykes took the challenge to get better head-on, and after committing to Green Bay in late September of his senior year, had a strong senior season for the Commandos before joining his new college program.
As a member of the Phoenix for three seasons under head coach Brian Wardle, Sykes has thrived even more. The 5-foot-11 guard has averaged double-figures in scoring in all three seasons and gotten progressively better in all facets of the game, culminating in averages of 20.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game last season while earning Horizon League Player of the Year honors.
Keifer went from Horizon League Newcomer of the Year as a freshman, to first-team All-Horizon League honors as a sophomore to the league’s Player of the Year as a junior.
But he’s more hungry for team success and making the NCAA Tournament.
While Green Bay’s record has also steadily gotten better over those same three seasons, Sykes has never had a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament and it drives him and the team to get better.
Last season’s defeat in the conference tournament semifinals at home to Milwaukee was a shocking upset for a team many expected to play in the NCAA Tournament. Even though Green Bay finished 24-7 and 14-2 in the league, they had to settle for the NIT as some writers used them as an example for how unfair the conference tournament system for winning a tournament bid can be.
“It motivates us a lot,” Sykes said of last season.” That put things in perspective. We know how to win games. Now we know that you have a small margin of error that you have to make it. We won so many games, and we were feeling so good, but losing one game or even two or three possessions that we needed to fall our way took us out of the tournament. That motivates us more and it makes us realize that everything has to be run to perfection.”
Green Bay head coach Brian Wardle said that Sykes has not only elevated his own play over the last couple years, but that of the entire program. Sykes helped raise the play at Marshall while he was in high school and has always had a big reputation for winning games and stepping up in the spotlight. Against eight 2014 NCAA Tournament opponents, Sykes raised his scoring average to 25.6 points per game.
“We had a great year last year, we took some big steps forward,” Wardle said. “But they have a taste of it now. And now the expectation is higher in that locker room. Way higher than any media or preseason predictions. We have higher expectations and [Keifer] has driven that behind the scenes.”
Wardle challenged his senior point guard to be more of a vocal leader and Sykes has responded by being more vocal and holding other players to a higher standard. With his high-flying game that features numerous highlight reel dunks, including a self-alley-oop — in which Sykes tosses the ball high in the air from the three-point line and runs under it without bouncing for an alley-oop — Sykes has also become a popular fixture in Green Bay, signing autographs and receiving a lot of positive admiration from the local fans.
Through it all, Wardle says that Sykes remains humble because he’s still working towards achieving the goals of the team.
“He’s in the gym all the time,” Wardle said. “He’s in the weight room. Watching film. He’s talking more, leading more than ever before. He wants to bring this program to another level. And that’s what’s been driving him all offseason and it’s contagious.”
Although Sykes has accomplished a lot in his first three seasons at Green Bay, he still wants to finish off a dynamic career with one more strong season. One that includes another leap and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re held to this standard and we don’t want to fail again,” Sykes said. “We know that feeling [of coming close but missing the tournament] from last year. We definitely don’t want to feel that again.”