Twelve games into the 2017/2018 season, the Green Bay Phoenix are in unfamiliar territory.
The Phoenix are just 2-7 against Division I competition so far this season and as of Friday are ranked #312 out of 351 Division I teams in the RPI.
Obviously RPI is a flawed statistic but since the NCAA Selection Committee still uses it and there is RPI information dating back to 1980, it is a decent metric to use when comparing seasons.
In 36 years of Division I basketball, Green Bay has never finished above 300 in a season in the RPI before and with only one non-conference game remaining – Saturday at 4:30 in Madison against Wisconsin – there isn’t a whole lot of room for improvement considering how bad the Horizon League is this season.
First, we’ll start with Green Bay. The Phoenix worst seasons were clearly in the mid 80’s when the program first moved to Division I. Green Bay’s worst season (RPI-wise) was 1983, its second year in DI, when the Phoenix went 9-19 and finished 265th in the RPI out of 274.
Throughout its history, the Phoenix have been able to avoid truly terrible seasons, finishing above 200 in the RPI only 7 times in 36 seasons. On the flip side, Green Bay has finished in the top 100 11 times during that span.
The program has proven to be at least a top-half team throughout its Division I history.
That is what makes this season so concerning. Yes, the roster turnover – having to replace 6 seniors and two more top players due to transfer – was incredibly difficult. But the team so far this season has fallen to depths not seen since Mike Heideman was coach in 2002.
Green Bay is not having the type of offensive season that head coach Linc Darner’s RP40 system requires. The team ranks 307th overall in field goal percentage (41.2%) including 309th in 2-point field goal percentage (46.4%) and 264th in 3-point field goal percentage (32.8%). The Phoenix are also playing at a slower tempo than the past two years, currently ranking 40th in adjusted tempo according to KenPom. They finished 6th in the nation in 2016 and 7th last season.
But RPI is not the only metric that is harsh to Green Bay so far this season. Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which measures point differential and strength of schedule for Division I opponents only, ranks this year’s team at -12.06 (0 is average) which would rank as the 2nd worst in the program’s Division I history ahead of only the 1985-1986 team that finished 5-23.
To be fair, the Phoenix have played with only 11 scholarship players for their first 11 games before junior Sandy Cohen became eligible in Thursday night’s 81-78 overtime loss to Bowling Green at the Resch Center. But even without Cohen, blowout losses at Northern Illinois, Indiana State, and a home loss to lowly Stetson likely would not have happened in the past.
Darner seems to put less emphasis on the non-conference schedule than other Green Bay coaches in the past, using the time to tinker with rotations to find what works to get the team playing its best basketball once the conference season hits.
“We’re trying different things and probably the first two months of the season, until we get into conference play, it might be things that we just have to try it in a game and work on and see how it goes to see what this group of guys can and can’t do,” he said before the season.
Well the good news for Darner and company is that the Horizon League is also historically bad this season and could be there for the taking.
The Phoenix entered the season as the 2nd winningest active program all-time in conference history only behind relative newcomer Oakland.
That’s an impressive feat given that the Horizon League used to be considered one of the top mid-major basketball leagues in the country. Even after Butler left in 2012, the conference still was ranked #14 as recently as 2014 according to CBS Sports. But since then the league has seen a steady decline dropping to #20 in 2016, an all-time low, before rebounding slightly to #17 last season. Previously the worst the league had ever finished was 19th in 1995 and 2002.
This season, after the loss of Valparaiso to the Missouri Valley Conference and the poor decision to add IUPUI, the conference has fallen to unthinkable depths.
As of Friday the Horizon League ranked as the 28th best conference out of the 32 Division I conferences in the country according to CBS ahead of only the Patriot League, America East, SWAC, and MEAC.
Obviously, Green Bay as a program and the Horizon League as a men’s basketball conference are trending in the wrong direction.
However, it is not out of the question for the Phoenix to get hot now that they are up to full strength and go on a run and win a wide-open Horizon League Tournament in Detroit. The talent has shown flashes this season with solid play from Khalil Small and Kameron Hankerson plus the emergence of freshman point guard PJ Pipes.
The Phoenix have just two seniors this season and, barring unforeseen transfers, should be better next season with the addition of Cody Schwartz. The Phoenix also still have three scholarships open to offer 2018 prospects, the first time without signing a recruit during the early signing period in recent memory.
So it’s not all doom-and-gloom. While this season has gotten off to a disturbing and surprisingly bad start, the program has been worse and come back before. Darner has had success everywhere he has been, including taking Green Bay to the NCAA Tournament in 2016.
It is not time to panic about the program yet.
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