The Green Bay Phoenix are back in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals and are two wins away from their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016.
Green Bay has reached the semifinals in 16 of its 26 seasons in the conference – the most of any Horizon League team over that span – but are just 4-11 in semifinal games including a loss to Wright State in Detroit last year. The Phoenix have now reached the semifinals in 6 of the past 8 years and are 2-3 in semifinal games over that span heading into tonight’s matchup with Northern Kentucky.
Tip off is scheduled for 8:30 central time tonight and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2 with Jason Benetti and Dan Dakich providing the commentary. The other semifinal game, Wright State vs UIC, tips off at 6:00 PM central time on ESPNU.
Here are a few things to watch for tonight:
1) Both teams come into the game having won 7 of their previous 9 games with Green Bay winning it’s last 3 in a row, including a must-win tournament quarterfinal game on Thursday night against Oakland. Northern Kentucky has not played since February 28th – a tough 64-62 home loss to Wright State that would’ve clinched a share of the regular season title and the #1 seed in the tournament for the Norse.
“I think we’re ready to go, I think we’re playing with a lot of confidence right now,” head coach Linc Darner said Sunday afternoon via the team’s official Twitter account. “I think our guys are loose. It’s time to roll it out and play.”
“We’re playing as good as anybody so I like our chances right now.”
Which team is hotter? And will ten days off be a good thing or a bad thing for Northern Kentucky? It will be interesting to watch.
2) Whoever controls the tempo is likely to come out on top tonight as there will be two vastly different styles on display. The Norse play at a slow, deliberate pace ranking 308 out of 353 Division I teams in adjusted tempo according to KenPom.com and have an average offensive possession length of 18.3 seconds. Green Bay, on the other hand, ranks 8th in country in adjusted tempo and plays at the fastest offensive pace in the country averaging just 14.5 seconds per possession.
Thanks to that quick pace Green Bay averages 82.0 points per game which is the third most in the country. They are 12-3 when they score at least 82 points in a game this season but on the flip side are 0-7 when they score 70 points or less, including a 71-62 loss to Northern Kentucky on January 31st. NKU has shown they can win a track meet as well as they are 7-1 when scoring over 80 points in a game this season and are 19-1 when scoring 65 points or more.
3) Green Bay handled NKU’s matchup zone quite effectively in the first meeting back in December, a 73-59 Phoenix victory. Green Bay jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead and never looked back leading by as much as 24 in the second half.
The Phoenix shot an efficient 47.4% from the floor and 41.2% (7-17) from beyond the arc in the game but did most of their damage knocking down open mid-range jump shots. They shot 48.3% (14-29) on mid-range jumpers in the game according to BartTorvik.com led by 4-4 from PJ Pipes, 4-5 from Manny Patterson, and 3-5 from Kam Hankerson.
Green Bay was not as effective against the Norse zone in the second meeting as they were held to just 33.8% shooting for the game, including 34.3% (12-35) from mid-range and 22.7% (5-22) from behind the arc.
“We’ve got to attack their zone better than we did at our place,” Darner said. “We attacked it real well the first time. But we’ve got to play in-to-out against their zone, we can’t just pass it around the perimeter and then shoot threes.”
NKU used a 22-4 run in the second half of that game to take control and grab a firm hold of second place in the conference standings.
4) Green Bay will likely need the Norse to continue missing their three point attempts in order to have a chance tonight. NKU is not a very prolific three point shooting team this season – they are making just 30.7% of their attempts against Division I competition which ranks 298th in the country – but they do shoot a lot of them. More than 45% of their shot attempts from the floor have come from behind the arc this season which ranks in the top 25 in the country in three point rate.
Green Bay held NKU to 19.2% (5-26) from behind the arc in the first meeting and 25.9% (7-27) in the second meeting, but the Norse still found a way to win that one. In that game NKU scored 30 points in the paint led by Jalen Tate who scored 14 of his 17 in the lane.
The Phoenix have been able to contain All-Horizon Second Team performer Tyler Sharpe so far in the two games this season holding him to 6 points in December and 4 points during the latest matchup at the Kress Center. Dantez Walton, making his return from injury, added 15 points in the Norse victory.
“We’ve got to keep them from getting to the rim, Tate and Walton,” Darner said. “We’ve got to guard the three point line on some of their guys and hope that when we double off guys and they kick it out to them they miss like they did the first time.”
“But they’re playing really well too right now.”
5) As Green Bay’s trio of starting guards go, so go the Phoenix. Since the calendar turned to 2020 Green Bay is 9-1 when JayQuan McCloud, Amari Davis, and Kameron Hankerson each score at least 9 points in a game. It speaks to the importance of having a balanced scoring attack instead of relying on one or two guys to do all of the scoring and makes it harder for the defense to defend when there are multiple scoring options.
Throw in Green Bay’s sixth man PJ Pipes (who scored his season high 20 points against Northern Kentucky in December) and you have a formidable foursome of guards who can each score from all over the floor and help break down the Norse zone defense.
The Phoenix will be looking to win the rubber match after spitting the season series with Northern Kentucky, much like they did last week by knocking off Oakland after splitting with them during the regular season as well.
It should be a great game for a national television audience.
“Northern Kentucky…we’re going to have our hands full,” associate head coach Randall Herbst told Brian Kuklinski on WDUZ radio after the game Thursday night. “They’re a powerful basketball team. They play a different style of defense than anybody else really does with their matchup zone. They’ve got some dangerous weapons with Tate and with Sharpe.”
“The one thing we have is we’ve played against them very well. We beat them at their place. We didn’t have a great shooting night at our place. But at the end of the day it’s going to be two high potent teams that are both playing very good basketball right now.”
With each team playing good basketball right now, anything can happen on a neutral floor in the Horizon League Tournament where the #1 seed has not won the tournament since Valparaiso did so on its home floor in 2015.
The Norse are a 5 point favorite tonight according to the Las Vegas odds makers.
“We want to be playing our best basketball of the season in February and March, I think we’re doing that,” Herbst said Thursday. “We’ve got some confidence going. It’s good to see.”
“That’s what we’ve got to have, solid tough play. You’ve got to be able to take care of the basketball, you’ve got to be able to rebound. It feels like we’re doing the right things right now and it’s a good time to do them.”
Categories: Phoenix Preview