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Brown, Sykes grow on and off the court

alec dopp , Sports Writer
November 14, 2013
Filed under Sports

When Green Bay Phoenix men’s basketball coach Brian Wardle looks back on the combination of Alec Brown and Keifer Sykes in the past two seasons, he admittedly struggles to sum it up with one word.

So he settles for five: “As good as it gets.”

In the past two seasons, the two have accounted for 42.5 percent of Green Bay’s points scored, 28.2 percent of its rebounds and 37.9 percent of its assists. Brown has already become the program’s all-time leader with 215 blocked shots, while Sykes’ 539 points last season were the eighth-most in school history.

Consequently, the 7-foot-1-inch Brown could become a first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft, while the 5-foot-11 Sykes was named to the 2014 Bob Cousy Award Watch List for the second straight season — a list recognizing the top 50 point guards in the country.

And with his team tabbed to win the conference, Wardle can’t help but reminisce on how far his star pupils have come.

“It’s hard to remember their first practice together, but I know they’re a lot more outspoken now,” Wardle said. “They’ve got kind of a swagger and confidence to them, and that confidence is contagious.”

It wasn’t long after their first practice that Brown and Sykes began to develop the swagger Wardle now finds so apparent.

In Green Bay’s 2011 regular-season opener against the University of Mary — the duo’s first game together — Brown led the team with 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Sykes garnered a game-high three steals to go with six points and two assists in a 94-55 rout.

Though they may not have realized it then, both performances set the tone for what would become an impressive first season as a pair.

Brown led Green Bay with 13.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game by the end of his 2011-12 campaign, while Sykes finished directly behind Brown with 11.2 points per game and held true to the team lead with 3.4 assists per game.

The season ultimately ended in disappointment however, as the Phoenix failed to advance as deep in the conference tournament as they would have liked.

But the 2012-13 season offered reasons for optimism, both for Green Bay as well as Brown and Sykes.

Stumbling to a 3-7 start over its first 10 games, the Phoenix landed back on its feet following an emotional Dec. 19 home victory over Marquette, finishing the year going 15-6 over its last 21 contests en route to a 18-16 overall record.

Brown improved in several categories, including an increased average of 14.1 points per game to go with 1.7 assists. His outside shot developed considerably, posting a 3-point percentage of .429 compared to .211 percent as a junior in 2011-2012.

Sykes augmented his game too, garnering a .431 3-point shooting percentage after a .233 mark as a sophomore. His 15.9 points per game was the third-highest average in the Horizon League, and his 4.3 assists and .815 free-throw percentage increased from his first season with the program.

Each believes the other’s presence has influenced those improvements.

“His ability to get to the hoop opens stuff up for me,” Brown said of Sykes. “When he’s driving guys, my guy has to help and that helps me out.”

“It’s really unique playing with him,” Sykes said of Brown. “To play with a real threat is good because when you’re a point guard you get that post presence that you can play off of. For him to step outside and make shots gives us a lot of opportunities to score.”

And while the Phoenix came within a last-second desperation heave of appearing in the conference’s tournament championship game last March, the duo’s second season together ended in dissatisfaction.

But they didn’t dwell on it for long.

“You just have to move on and forget about it,” Brown said.  “It’s a pretty quick turnaround in college basketball. We were getting ready for the next season a week after that happened. There’s close games all the time in college basketball.”

Sykes echoed those sentiments from his teammate when he said, “I pride myself on taking on challenges,” Sykes said. “So when things aren’t going well, I try to be the front-runner and try to get guys going in the right direction by leading by example.”

As their third and final campaign together begins to take center stage, the Phoenix will rely heavily on the guidance of both Sykes and Brown, both on and off the court.

And that is what Wardle is most proud of.

“As much as you like to see their numbers go up as a coach, I think most coaches get in this business to see the development of young on and off the floor,” Wardle said.  “And that’s what you want. When they leave your program, you want them to have some really good characteristics of hard work, loyalty and dedication. These guys have shown that through their years.”

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