(left) is an intriguing NBA prospect, a 7-footer who can shoot the three-pointer. (Andy Manis/AP)
By the time Keifer Sykes caught the lob against Illinois-Chicago on Jan. 19, his eyes were level with the rim. And by the time Wisconsin-Green Bay’s leading scorer was a fraction of a second from jamming the ball through, his elbow was above the rim. His head was just about clear of it. Freezing the video replay at this instant makes it look as if Sykes paused to read the display around the rim of UIC Pavilion, one advertising a bar and grill dubbed “the official postgame spot of the Flames,” a Chicago expat contemplating a bite to eat after his work was done.
Sykes finished the slam with his right hand and steadied himself with his left upon landing. The Phoenix’s bench lost it. As did the sizeable contingent of Wisconsin-Green Bay fans on hand. There are dunks, and there are backdoor lob dunks, and there are backdoor lob dunks to 5-foot-11 point guards who could kiss the iron if he timed it just right.
“It has a huge effect on the team,” Sykes said. “They always tell me to stay aggressive. A dunk always ignites us and ignites me. We know with this team, all we need is a little bit of momentum to open a game up and get going.”
Where Wisconsin-Green Bay is an intriguing team which boasts an unheralded 12-game winning streak. Hardly anyone sees the Phoenix but plenty watch, with NBA scouts littering arenas to observe a 7-foot center with three-point range and a combustible point guard with spring-loaded legs. And whether anyone wants to see them in March, presuming they secure the automatic NCAA tournament invite in an almost assuredly one-bid league, is another story.
The Phoenix have a win over ACC contender Virginia and lost by three to Big Ten contender Wisconsin. They are 54th in the latest official RPI rankings from the NCAA. But this is down from a previous slotting of 41st, which was down from 35th four games ago in the winning streak, all thanks to a weak Horizon League. But it’s the strength of Sykes, averaging 20.8 points per game, and senior center Alec Brown, averaging 16.4 points and shooting 42.6 percent from three-point range, that may mean the most in the next two months.
“We have to keep our edge,” coach Brian Wardle said. “We’ve got a lot of guys in that locker room that have chips on their shoulders, that want to prove to people what they’re made of. We need to keep that and stay grounded and humble and hungry. And if we have a little bit of luck, I’d love to have the opportunity to show people what Green Bay basketball is all about.”
For now, it’s about a chatty, spritely point guard from the Chicago Public League and a low-maintenance, low-key center from Winona, Minn., pop. 27,944. It is a juxtaposition that would make for an unwatchable family channel sitcom. In practice, it makes for effectual basketball. It is as Wardle has joked with Brown:
Did you think when you were in Winona that you’d be playing with a little guard from Marshall High School and be having this much fun?
“I didn’t have that exact vision,” Brown said with a laugh, “but when I saw him play for the first time I could definitely see it, for sure.”
Still, this began with Brown, the player Wardle considered a bedrock recruit. Brown had a nice touch then and a need to expand his game, but the more pressing need was expanding his waistline. Lamenting his new meal plan – “Eating has turned into a job, instead of when you’re just hungry,” he said – Brown bulked up from about 185 pounds as a freshman to 230 in his final season.
His repertoire swelled just as gradually. He was always reliable from 15-to-17 feet. He then added running rooks and counters and turnarounds to boost his post game. Then, annually, Brown boosted his range, most intensely during the summer before his junior season. That year he demonstrated to Wardle he could shoot consistently from beyond the arc, firing at a 42.9 percent clip. “I guess it’s just working on it constantly in the offseason, getting more confident with it, and getting the green light from coach to take a step back and start shooting them,” Brown said. “And they’re going in.”
NBA scouts, meanwhile, go into arenas to take note of a player that can space the floor and invert a defense while holding his own on the defensive end of the floor.
“I know it’s hard to not think about it because people are talking about it all the time,” Brown said. “But I usually don’t even know when they’re in the crowd. Coach doesn’t tell me, and I don’t ask him to tell me.”
Wardle is tempted regularly to force-feed the chatter to his reticent center, so Brown recognizes just how good he is. “People don’t understand -- he has a chance to maybe lead the league in three-point shooting and blocked shots,” Wardle said. “There’s not a lot of guys that can do that.”
Here, the coach paused.
“On the other hand,” Wardle continued, “I got a point guard that may lead the league in assists and dunks.”
Though Sykes played at Marshall High, one of the most prominent programs in Chicago’s Public League, he did not plunge into the AAU circuit at any point. He figured that the scouts and coaches eventually would come, but the lack of exposure on the club circuit had few high-major programs showing interest until his senior season. In fact, Wardle saw quickness and speed in Sykes from the time the recruitment began, but that startling pop off the floor didn’t emerge until after Sykes’ junior season in high school.
Sykes picked Wisconsin-Green Bay and stuck with his commitment. He had the ball thrust in his hands immediately as a freshman. He then had to work on the thrust in his game, playing with more balanced tempo. Sykes watched top point guards from the NBA and college to learn how to change pace and use speed “as a tool, not as one gear,” as he put it.
For a high-volume scorer and efficient shooter (49.5 percent from the floor), his assist percentage – the measure of how many teammates score via Sykes – is up to 31.7 percent, second in the Horizon and just outside the top 50 nationally. He controls the floor everywhere, a clear frontrunner for Horizon League Player of the Year honors.
As significantly, he throws down dunks that become instant adrenaline injections for the Phoenix. The lob dunk against Illinois-Chicago was eye-popping, but so was the sequence that led to another: The ball came loose at midcourt, and Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Jordan Fouse picked it up to start a three-on-none break.
Fouse had a clear lane to the rim. Instead, he passed to Sykes and then enjoyed his front-row seat to the show, a two-handed exclamation point of a jam.
“You can always say the old saying that a layup is as good as a dunk,” Wardle said. “But I don’t really believe in that as a coach. A dunk can change the body language of your team, it can change the body language of your opponent and it can completely change the momentum of the game. When Keifer rises up, even when he’s missed some, it changes our mindset as a team. We’re on the attack. When we’re on attack and we’re the aggressors, we’re a better team.”
They’re also better because Sykes and Brown never have had a more instinctive rapport. Wardle sees them seek each other out on the floor even when the play call doesn’t direct the action their way, deeming their eye contact “way better than it ever has been.” It was a product of considering how defenses approached them last year and devising as many ways to counteract that as possible last summer.
For example, Sykes and Brown probed the issue of teams going under ball screens, daring Sykes to shoot while guarding against penetration. So the two simply began to set the screen lower. “So if they do go under,” Sykes said, “by the time they try to recover and we set it at the free-throw line, I’ll already be at the basket and he’ll be spaced about 20 feet away for a three. They have to pick their poison at that point.”
One compensates for the other: In effect, that is the entire Wisconsin-Green Bay plan. In a rugged home win over Detroit on Sunday, Brown scuffled to 1-of-7 shooting from the floor before leaving with a shoulder injury. (His status was uncertain for Wednesday's game at Valparaiso.) Sykes, meanwhile, dropped in 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds as UW-Milwaukee extended its winning streak to 12.
Outside of games, Sykes prods Brown to do more talking and take ownership of the success. “I want the guys to listen to him more than me,” Sykes said. “It’s his last run. I want to let him know that he’s the captain of the ship. I’m just Robin, and he’s Batman.”
Any NCAA tournament push will require the services of both, anyway. Many have watched Wisconsin-Green Bay but a relative few have seen what the Phoenix are capable of. It may be impossible to keep this a secret until March. But then Sykes, Brown and the rest never asked for that in the first place.
“If we keep playing the way we are, we’re going to keep getting attention,” Brown said. “We’re not going to sneak up on anyone then. They’re going to know what we have. And that’s fine with us.”