I bet this Green Bay men's basketball team has a bad taste in its mouth.
Riding high into the Horizon League tournament last season at 24-7, the regular season champs had blazed to a 14-2 conference record led by their two stars Keifer Sykes and Alec Brown. The Phoenix played host to a middling Milwaukee team.
Green Bay fell behind by halftime, then stormed back, but lost in overtime. Its NCAA Tournament dreams were dashed. The hangover carried forward to the NIT, where the Phoenix fell to Belmont. At home. Again.
The seven-footer is gone, but the dynamic Sykes returns this season. And the team may have something powerful that it lacked a year ago: a chip on its shoulder.
It's likely that no one knows more about having something to prove than Sykes. The 5-11 "point" guard out of Chicago Marshall has been a star since he arrived on the frozen tundra, despite not being deemed big enough for major conference basketball. Sykes averaged 20 points, five assists and over four rebounds per game as a junior, including a then-career high 32 points and his own in-game dunk contest against Wisconsin (2-0) at the Resch Center. Sykes went on to become a bit of a mixtape hero this summer.
As a senior, Sykes is still waiting for his first trip to the Big Dance. He understands what's at stake every minute he's on the floor and certainly knows what a win over the No. 3 team in the land would do for Green Bay's (1-0) tourney resume.
"There are no guarantees to make it into the tournament," Sykes said. "In mid-major basketball, you lose one possession and that can be the difference in making the tournament and not making the tournament, no matter how many games you win."
In the past, guards like Sykes have given Wisconsin fits. In fact, Sykes was the first to expose Wisconsin's lack of quickness and team defense deficiencies last season, which the Badgers were able to overcome until another smallish point guard (Yogi Ferrell) handed them their first loss of the season last January.
This season, UW's pick-and-roll defense has looked better, but against subpar competition so far. Green Bay will be a large step up. Sykes brings with him a solid supporting cast, including junior swingman-- and Racine St. Cat's alum -- Jordan Fouse and 6-9 power forward Greg Mays.
Fortunately, history definitely favors Wisconsin in Madison. The last time the Phoenix played the Badgers to within 10 points came a full decade ago. Since then, even as Tod Kowalczyk and now Brian Wardle have Green Bay on the rise, the average margin of victory for Wisconsin at the Kohl Center has been 18 points.
The average margin of victory in Green Bay? It's a half point ... in favor of the Phoenix. No wonder the school was trying to play hardball with UW about a more favorable scheduling agreement.
Not only will the location be in Wisconsin's strength, but obviously the overall talent level. The Badgers strengthen what is possibly the best front court in the country with the return of senior reserve Duje Dukan tonight. Frank Kaminsky had a stellar second half last season to save the game for Wisconsin, just days before his record-breaking performance against North Dakota. I'd expect more of the same this time. Mays and Fouse can play, no doubt, but UW now comes in waves inside.
All in all, the in-state games are fun each year, but infinitely more so when both programs are humming. Wardle has survived some rocky times in Green Bay but has his program on the national radar, providing the first truly exciting test for the Badgers of the young season.
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