It would be easy to be down on this year’s Phoenix team if you look at pretty much any “expert” predictions of where Green Bay will finish in the Horizon League standings this year.
It makes sense on paper. Green Bay loses their top three scorers from last season, has eight newcomers, and a second-year head coach who inherited a program that went from playing one of the fastest tempos in the country to a more deliberate, efficiency based style.
With unproven transfers and true freshmen that are expected to play significant minutes, it’s understandable that outsiders view the Phoenix as a roster full of question marks. So after significant roster turnover that saw several players transfer out and stylistic fits brought in to replace them, what can we expect in year two of the Will Ryan era?
“We’re going to experience a similar style [to last year],” Ryan said via the Horizon League. “I tell our guys we can play fast, slow, or anything in-between just as long as we’re taking high percentage shots and we’re passing the ball, sharing it, spreading the wealth, making each other better.”
That’s a stark contrast from Linc Darner’s high speed, take the first decent shot opportunity you have offense and rag tag defense from a few years ago. The defense was still a significant issue last season ranking 324th in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com.
Gone are stellar guard Amari Davis, who transferred to Missouri, scorer Josh Jefferson, who is using his COVID bonus year to play at Middle Tennessee State, and do-everything guard PJ Pipes who is also using his free year on the west coast at Santa Clara. The guard trio was responsible for nearly 61% of Green Bay’s offense last season and took more than 60% of the shot attempts from the floor.
Replacing their production will be a team effort but Ryan has a combination of newcomers and returners to help pick up the slack.
“I feel like we’re a little bit deeper this year,” he said. “Are we going to get out and press and have relentless pressure for 94 feet or 40 minutes of hell like Nolan Richardson did back in the Arkansas days? Probably not, but I think we can do some things now that we’re a little bit bigger and longer in certain positions.”
“But we’re going to stick to our roots and stick to our core foundation of just playing solid man-to-man defense and then taking care of the ball, taking good shots, and spreading the ball around.”
Finishing at the bottom of the conference standings would be unprecedented in recent Green Bay basketball history. The Phoenix have never finished last in the standings since joining the Horizon League in 1994 and have finished second last – their consensus preseason prediction this year – just once, way back in the 2000/2001 season. GB has also only finished third from the bottom once in that span, a 7th place finish (out of 9 teams) a year later during the 2001/2002 season.
Green Bay, which finished just outside the top half of the league last season in 7th place, has finished in the top half of the conference in 18 of their 27 Horizon League seasons.
With the benefit of a full offseason and several key returners coming back with a year in his system under their belts, Ryan believes that continuity will help the newcomers with their learning curve during their first year in the program.
“I expect us to compete at a high level each and every night out,” Ryan said. “With a lot of new faces – although some are experienced newcomers from various schools or junior colleges – but I think the guys who have stayed in our program and have improved since last year, those guys are kind of leading the way as our torch bearers so to speak. I think they have done a really good job throughout the summer and early fall here with our workouts of showing them the ropes. So I think having those guys as an extension of our coaching staff and having some vets now that can bring the newcomers and young guys along a little bit quicker than we did last year.”
“I think in all honesty we should be able to compete in each and every game and hopefully be on the right side of most games. We did have a lot of close ones last year and hopefully we can change the outcome of games like that.”
To be fair, most preseason predictions at this level just rely on the previous year’s stats. So when there are underwhelming stats for transfers (like Mitch Listau, who was under-utilized at Belmont) or a lack of any kind of JUCO stats for a player like Blayton Williams, who sat out last season due to injury, those making the predictions don’t have much to go off of.
That leaves plenty of opportunity for this Green Bay team to surprise people, and there is a lot to like so far for a team that has been flying under the radar this offseason.
“I would say first and foremost is their competitiveness and their desire to get better each and every day,” Ryan said, when asked what he likes most about this team. “They compete. They’re challenging each other. Each and every drill, the weight room, shooting drills. Even when the coaches aren’t around they’re getting up and down and playing. We didn’t have that as much as I would’ve liked to last year.”
“We’ve got guys that are hungry to get better each and every day and they’re trying to earn some minutes. Just the competitiveness and the basketball IQ, we’ve got guys that just know how to play.”
“They’re unselfish, they’re trying to make each other better.”
Green Bay’s regular season finishes since joining the Horizon League (1994/1995):
Photo via Green Bay Athletics