Horizon League Tournament champion Green Bay arrived in Oklahoma City, Okla., for its NCAA Tournament game on Wednesday tonight. Thursday afternoon, the Phoenix got their first peek at Chesapeake Arena as Green Bay met with the media and spent 40 minutes on the court.
Green Bay’s first round West Region First Round game versus third-seed Texas A&M tips off at 7:20 p.m. EST on Friday and will be shown on TBS.
First Appearance in 20 Years
Friday’s game will mark Green Bay’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1995 when the Phoenix fell to third-seed Purdue, 49-48. Green Bay also represented the Horizon League in the 1994 NCAA Tournament. The 12-seed Phoenix defeated California 61-57 in the first round before falling to 4-seed Syracuse, 64-59, in the second round.
“It would definitely be a great feeling to go out with a win in the NCAA Tournament just because of all the history of Green Bay and all the players that we've had come through here,” senior forward Jordan Fouse said. “It's just been a great, great experience for me. Just to go out with a win would be a very big accomplishment.”
Texas A&M similar to Valpo?
Fouse, senior guard Carrington Love and Head Coach Linc Darner were asked to name a team similar to Texas A&M that they saw during the regular season and all three pointed to Horizon League regular season champion Valparaiso.
“Valpo, they probably have the most size of the Horizon League this year,” Fouse said. “They probably had a 5 that could be 6'7" and above. And I feel that's kind of what Texas A&M has in the same sense, just a little bit bigger. And they're a great defensive team, just like Valpo.”
Green Bay went 1-2 versus the Crusaders in the regular season. The Phoenix lost at Valparaiso in January and then lost on a three-pointer with two seconds left in regulation in February. In the Horizon League Championship, Green Bay knocked off the top-seed Crusaders 99-92 in overtime.
“I think Valpo with their size (is comparable),” Darner said. “Valpo was a lot bigger than what we were. I think Stanford (is another comparable team) and Georgia Tech. I think those teams would be comparable.”
Like Valparaiso, Texas A&M utilizes a nine-man rotation, which along with its height, is another concern for Darner.
“One bad thing is they do have a very deep team,” Darner said. “I'd rather play a team that only played six or seven guys all year, not playing a team that played nine and then they'll rotate nine guys in and out. But that's been one of our strengths all year.
“Now the question is can we get to the free-throw line when we get inside because our 6'4" guys are going to be shooting it against 6'10" guys. And a lot of times they can stand there and block it without having to jump. We've talked a lot about getting there, shot faking, penetrating, kicking it out to the open guy.
“We struggled at the beginning of the year when we played Stanford and Georgia Tech. We got in there a lot, but we got it blocked a lot. I think we've gotten a lot better, but I think one of the biggest keys is how many free throws we do shoot tomorrow.
Texas A&M’s players and coaches compared Green Bay’s style of pace to fellow SEC foe Arkansas.
“They’re pretty skilled one through four, even the five-man is pretty active with his hands,” Texas A&M senior guard Alex Caruso said. “They cause a lot of turnovers and try to score a bunch of points.
“A good comparison in our league is Arkansas, somebody that likes to speed the game up, shoot threes or get lay-ups. Just kind of play faster, so that’s been a good resemblance for us to try to think about.
The Aggies split their regular season meetings with Arkansas, defeating the Razorbacks at home, but falling in Fayetteville.
“Arkansas is, I call it organized chaos at times,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “So we’ve played against that in our league. I’ve coached against that before. I think what makes them special is how good they are in turning it into offense. And they’ve got a lot of weapons who can score the ball and they drive the ball with all their guys who are able to get to the free throw line. I think that’s what makes them different than maybe some of the other teams. A lot of teams play fast defensively and jack up a lot of threes, but they do a really good job of getting in the paint.”
Green Bay Heating Up at Right Time
The Phoenix enter Friday’s game having won eight of their last nine games. The only loss in that span was a 70-68 decision to Valparaiso on a three-pointer by the Crusaders with two seconds remaining.
“I feel like we just started to click towards the last eight or nine games,” Fouse said. “We started to know our roles a little better and know where to pick and choose our spots where to attack or maybe not. And we just started to play defense as well. We were all on a string, just all working together trying to get stops. We started to rebound the ball as well. If we get stops and rebounds, it's pretty tough to stop us.”
“I feel like everybody's kind of clicked in and we've got better chemistry,” Love said. “Having new guys come in like Jamar Hurdle and Charles Cooper, it kind of takes a few games to get used to guys. But we're all on the same page the last ten games and we're playing at a high level right now.”
The Phoenix transitioned from a system that saw it go from one of the lowest scoring teams in the Horizon League to a team that enters the NCAA Tournament averaging 84.2 points per game, sixth in all of DI.
“I give the credit to our guys, to our two seniors,” Darner said. “I think they believed in it. I think they enjoyed playing the way we play. I think it's a lot easier to convince guys you're going to go from - and Green Bay had great success playing the way they've played defensively in a slower, keep the score lower - and then all of a sudden, here comes a guy that's going to talk about we're going to score and average 85. Carrington, you're going to go from averaging 10 to averaging 18 or 20. Jordan, you're going to be 14, 15, 10 rebounds, four, five assists, bunch of steals. I think it's a lot easier sell to them. But when we started 0-3, we were a little bit worried.”
“Coach is all about progression, so throughout the season he wants you to get better and better every day. And end of season, obviously its March Madness and that's when he wants us to be playing our best basketball. And his philosophy on the court works out that way, and our style of play fits tournament style of play also.”
- Carrington Love on if Coach Darner has coached the team differently in March
“No, I think the only thing we try to do is keep them relaxed. I think sometimes you can overdo it. I've been a player and now I've been a coach. The one thing we try to do is keep everything relaxed. In the Horizon League tournament, we didn't have one day of walk-through after our first round game. Most coaches would have found another site, go to it, do a walk-through. Our shooting time has changed for tomorrow, so I don't know if we'll go use our other time at another school to shoot. Sometimes I think you can get the guys running around a little too much. And not emphasize how important it is to win, just about how important it is to play well.”
- Linc Darner on if he coaches any differently in March
“I think they've done a decent job. We had a little meditation session the other day in practice. I thought the nerves were getting to them a little bit. To calm them down, I had them all close their eyes and take a deep breath and relax. But it's going to be a new set of nerves for them, and this is a big stage. It's to be expected. They should have butterflies tomorrow when the game starts. Both teams probably will. It's a different stage for everybody. But once they get going and settle in, it will be good to get some shots up today. We'll use our shoot around time tomorrow to get more shots. Just relax. Once the ball goes up, block everything out and let's see what happens.
- Linc Darner on how team has handled the attention since winning the Horizon League Championship