What had once seemed like uncharted waters has unfortunately turned into somewhat familiar territory.
The Green Bay Phoenix mens basketball program, which until this season has finished in the top 100 of the NCAA’s RPI/NET rankings more often than it has finished above 200 in the rankings during its 42 seasons of Division I basketball, now has finished 300+ in the rankings for the third time in the past six years. The Phoenix will finish 361st out of 363 Division I teams in the NET rankings this season, by far the worst in the program’s history.
A slide that began under Linc Darner, who’s Green Bay team finished above 300 in the NET rankings (#312) for the first time in the program’s history in 2018, got considerably worse the past three seasons under Will Ryan with the Phoenix finishing 275, 344, and now 361.
So with the program in a tailspin at an all-time low on the court and fan attendance still at 30-year lows, new head coach Sundance Wicks will need to rebuild and re-energize a program and a fanbase that is not even a decade removed from being in the NCAA Tournament at-large conversation.
A guy with unlimited energy like Wicks, though, seems to be up for the challenge.
The new coach has hit the ground running and has made the rounds doing local TV interviews while also attending the women’s two home postseason WNIT games meeting and greeting fans – including running down the sidelines high fiving fans in the first and second rows at the Kress Center.
“I just know that this fanbase and this community is starving for that,” Wicks said in a halftime interview with Ted Stefaniak on ESPN+ during Green Bay’s WNIT victory over Niagara. “They just want something to connect to.”
“The players we’re going to bring in, the style of play that we’re going to put on the floor, it’s going to be a connecting style. The Green Bay Way has always been about sharing the basketball, being able to play great team basketball. But the Green Bay Way is also about connecting with the community and making sure that they feel ownership in everything that we do.”
“So for me just to show a little bit of love to this community, for them to show the love that I’ve received, I always tell people you don’t have to be from Wisconsin to understand Wisconsin values. That’s hard hat, lunch pail, making sure you go meet them on their terms.”
Without question, re-engaging with the community and getting butts back in the seats at the Resch Center will be an important part of the job.
UW-Green Bay athletic director Josh Moon said as much back in January, telling WLUK-TV the program needs “to hit the reset button with our fans” and telling WFRV-TV that “almost 50% of [the new coach’s] job needs to be fundraising, building relationships, getting to know people.”
But getting back to winning ways will also get the community engaged. Considering where the program is at on the court right now, that may be a tougher task than fundraising or building relationships currently.
The Phoenix ranked 359th (out of 363) in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season according to KenPom.com and finished with a 3-29 record, by far the most losses in the program’s history, surpassing the previous record (25) set last season.
To make matters worse, 26 of those 29 losses were by double digits with the average margin of defeat being 19.4 points.
So how will Wicks approach rebuilding the program?
“One, you’ve got to assess the state of the program – which isn’t hard to do right now – to know where we’re at,” Wicks told Stefaniak. “There’s nowhere to go but up.”
“But from that, you have to get to the competing side of things again. Everybody wants to talk about winning but before winning you have to compete. For us, it’s building a roster of guys that want to be competitive. You can’t go out and play the game of basketball – I don’t care where you’re at in life, you can’t go out to your job and not be competitive. You can’t go on the basketball floor and not be competitive.”
“You better like to fricken compete, and that’s what our guys have to learn how to do. And if they’re not going to be about that, it’s going to be hard to be in Green Bay, that’s just not what we’re going to be about. So let’s start with competing first and foremost, that’s every single day that we step on this floor or we get in this community.”
Whether the new coach will be tasked with getting better results with the current roster or a large roster makeover takes place remains to be seen. As of the publishing of this article, four Phoenix players have entered the transfer portal (Zae Blake, Clarence Cummings, Randy Tucker, and Garren Davis) with another (Nate Jenkins) taking part in Senior Day ceremonies last month and likely calling it a career.
With the three freshman newcomers (Mac Wrecke, Cal Klesmit, and Marcus Hall) all seemingly still committed to the program, that leaves just two open spots available at the moment, though it is likely there will be some more departures.
Wicks had a brief Zoom call with the team when he first got the job but has been in Green Bay since last Thursday, though UWGB was on spring break last week. It’s likely there will be some hard in-person conversations at the Kress Center this week.
“I just wanted to let them know that these situations are unique,” Wicks said of his initial Zoom call with the team. “It wasn’t their dream to play for coach Sundance Wicks, they signed with another staff.”
“But we all have to be responsible for the situation we’re in. Every player that was in that locker room is responsible for the situation that’s happening right now. So once we take ownership of that, I told them we can start to move forward. But if we’re a little bit delusional and think that none of us are responsible for the situation that occurred then we’ve got a long ways to go.”
“I think they felt that message. They understood that if they don’t match my energy every single day, it’s going to be a tough mountain to climb.”
It’s disheartening and tough to swallow just how far this program has fallen. Since 1990, no Horizon League team has more NCAA Tournament appearances (5) than Green Bay. Only Robert Morris (8) and Detroit Mercy (6) have more total in their history. The Phoenix have put 5 players in the NBA in that span, tied with Detroit Mercy for the most in the conference.
But with a new coach on board and ready to take on the major challenge of this rebuild, things are looking Sunny in Green Bay indeed.
“This is a storied program,” Wicks said. “When you think about Dick Bennett, I played for a coach who modeled our motion offense after Dick Bennett, Blocker-Mover. This is a storied program, there is a lot of history and tradition here, it has won. Every coach has won here, except for the last one – that’s no knock, it’s just what it is, it’s a situation. So for us, it’s to realize that history and tradition, honor that, connect the past players to our future players, and then know how we go from there.”
“I think to move forward you have to be able to look back and say how was this done before with Wardle, with Kowalczyk, with Heideman, with Bennett, with Dave Buss. You look back at the history of those coaches and you sit there and you go, ‘it’s an honor to be here.’ We just want to make sure that we do everybody proud.”
“This thing is going to be built, not bought,” Wicks said in closing. “I know we’re living in the NIL days but we’re going to build this program, we’re not going to buy it. So we’re going to make sure we get the right kids in here with the right motives and right intentions.”
Photo courtesy Green Bay Phoenix Athletics
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