There was an obvious irony to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay hosting a Throwback Night on Friday. For if one is familiar with the program’s history, this year’s Phoenix team is anything but a throwback-unless maybe one is throwing it back to 1971.
Dave Buss-the program’s very successful first coach-once led a team that averaged over 90 points per game in 1970-71, but his teams soon came to be known for a slower pace and zone defense. The iconic Dick Bennett’s defensive philosophies at Green Bay-as the school likes its athletic programs to go by now-are among the most influential in the sport today. Even recent coach Brian Wardle’s teams were hard to score on, with an underappreciated athleticism and length not many would expect at the Horizon League level.
Few programs have built more of an identity with defense, and the Phoenix is still playing it-check the NCAA national leaders in steals. Make no mistake, though-Green Bay now and for the foreseeable future is going to be known for offense.
Under first-year coach Linc Darner, UW-Green Bay now runs one of the highest-octane attacks in the country. Wearing throwback uniforms with the popular ‘uwgb’ lower case type worn under program founder Buss as well as the legendary Bennett, the Phoenix demonstrated their offensive prowess again in an 85-69 win over stubborn Illinois-Chicago at the Resch Center on Friday.
Green Bay had one of its lowest first-half scoring totals of the season, yet thanks to a big finish still nudged right up against its season scoring average of 85.6 ppg that is tied for third nationally in Division I. Fifty-three points was often tough for opponents to score in an entire game during the eras of Buss and Bennett, yet Green Bay scored that much itself in just the second half against UIC, the 13th time it has reached 50 in a half this season.
Aided by a rare plus-18 rebounding advantage, the Phoenix continued an impressive debut season under their first-year coach. Green Bay was especially relentless on the glass in the second half, out-rebounding the Flames 29-16, including 14 of its whopping 24 offensive rebounds. The good work on the boards was evident in performances such as those by Charles Cooper (20 points, 10 rebounds) and Jordan Fouse (14 points, 15 rebounds).
It didn’t come easy, as Green Bay had to withstand an up-and-down first 30 minutes against the young, plucky Flames, pushing out to solid leads on several occasions before the guests battled back. The Phoenix executed better late against the 2-3 zone UIC used for much of the game, scoring 26 points in the final 7:19 and hitting six of their final 11 three-point tries after being 3-for-20 up to that point.
“That first half…with the throwback jerseys, was kind of a throwback basketball game,” said Darner to begin his postgame comments. “We got off to a decent start, and then boom, couldn’t do anything right. Then in the second half we came out and played much better.”
Green Bay has quietly had a very nice season, sitting at 19-11 overall and 11-6 in the Horizon League entering its regular season finale Sunday against Valparaiso. The Phoenix had already wrapped up the fourth seed in the upcoming conference tourney in Detroit and there aren’t many who can honestly say they saw it coming, if for no other reason than because of so many new variables with the program.
When Wardle departed for the job at Bradley after last season, he left a cupboard more empty than full for the next coach. Star guard Keifer Sykes completed his career, as did two more starters who were part of teams that just missed the NCAA Tournament each of the past two years.
Green Bay made an inspired choice for its head coaching position, though, in hiring Darner, a former player under Gene Keady at Purdue who had just won the Division II title at Florida Southern. In addition to being successful-a career .714 winning percentage at the D-II level-his teams in 13 years at Florida Southern and St. Joseph (Ind.) also were entertaining, regularly averaging over 80 ppg.
Rather than being a rocky transition for the returnees, Darner’s system has suited to a T veterans like Fouse (a stat sheet filler who is also one of the best defenders and “glue guys” in the country) and leading-scorer Carrington Love (nearly 19 ppg), who have seen their scoring averages nearly double from a year ago. Add in newcomers like Cooper (second on the team behind Love in scoring and Fouse in rebounding) and Jamar Hurdle (a guard coming on of late with double figures four straight games) and the Phoenix leads D-I in total steals and ranks in the top five nationally in free throw attempts, steals per game, scoring, turnover margin and turnovers forced per game.
The terms “relentless” and “pressure” permeate everything Green Bay now does-in fact, they are part of the program’s mantra. “RP40” is seen all over Phoenix warmups. It sounds like a double-secret chemical formula, but simply stands for “relentless pressure for 40 minutes,” on both ends of the court.
Green Bay pushes the ball at every opportunity offensively, whether after missed baskets or makes. On defense, the team regularly applies man-to-man pressure from end line to end line, and is not afraid to take a calculated gamble.
“I think it goes to the guys for their hard work and, you know, believing in the system,” said Darner of the team’s success. “Whenever you take over and a team’s had great success like Green Bay has, back-to-back 24-win seasons, here comes the new guy in and he’s going to completely change everything in how they play, and all the sudden we’re going to press and trap and do different things and they haven’t really done it…I think our guys have done a great job of buying in and, you know, they’ve stuck with it. I think we’ve gotten a lot better from where we were when we first started playing, and I think a lot of it has to go to the guys with their hard work.”
It’s only been one year, but so far Darner has been a slam-dunk hire for Green Bay. It shouldn’t be that surprising, for some of the best offensive coaches in Division I have roots in the Division II, III, NAIA and junior college levels. From Iona’s Tim Cluess to Tony Shaver at William & Mary-even going back to another Wisconsin basketball legend, Bo Ryan-coaches from lower levels have regularly brought innovative and productive offensive systems to the Division I level. The history of schools dipping into the lower division collegiate ranks is not particularly deep. It certainly seems it’s not as deep as it should be.
Different as the style under Darner is, it is not unprecedented. It was Buss’s 1970-71 UW-Green Bay team competing at the NAIA level that averaged a program-record 90.5 points per game on the way to a 23-5 record in just the second year of the program. Scoring and pace in college basketball were at their highest levels in the history of the sport, and even Green Bay was no exception.
Buss helped grow the program to the NCAA Division II and, soon after, Division I levels, while his teams later gained a reputation for slowing it down. That rep became ingrained in the program when Bennett took over for Dick Lien in 1985, particularly after Bennett led UWGB to its first three NCAA Tournament appearances, including a 1994 win over Jason Kidd and California. He also developed the “pack line defense” that is now used by son Tony at Virginia, at a host of other schools and is perhaps the most popular halfcourt defensive strategy in the game.
This year’s Phoenix team, though, is on pace for its second-highest scoring season in 47 years of basketball, exceeded by only that second season. In some ways, the program is coming full circle. And even with a style that might be different to what most are used to, it may not be long before the Phoenix is challenging its previous heights. And maybe even exceeding them.