Tiny Dancers: Green Bay sprints its way to NCAA Tournament berth

When Green Bay replaced Brian Wardle with Linc Darner last offseason, many outside of the basketball industry had questions. After all, he’s not exactly the traditional candidate who comes from low-major D-I school or plies his trade for years as an assistant from a high-major school. Would a coach with only two years of (assistant) Division I basketball coaching experience, coming two decades ago, be able to take over a program and lead it back to the promised land?

But those inside the industry have long known Darner’s name, as over the past eight years the former Purdue captain has been one of the most successful Division II coaches in the country. He ended his final season at Florida Southern in 2015 with a D-II national title and went to the D-II tournament eight years in a row.

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So yeah, the guy is pretty familiar with single-elimination tournaments at the end of the year. One has to think this one coming next week might feel a bit differently though.

Darner has led Green Bay back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996 after running past Wright State in the Horizon League Final 78-69 on Tuesday. And yes, run is the operative word here.

The Phoenix are one of the fastest teams in basketball, averaging 79.8 possessions per game. On average, Green Bay offensive possessions end faster than any other team’s in the country at just 13.4 seconds. But don’t mistake them for an all-offense, light on defense group. This team gets down in its stance, forces long offensive possessions, and forces turnovers to try and get out and run again, where they score more points in transition than any other team in college basketball.

No matter where the Phoenix end up being seeded, their game in the Big Dance is going to be a must-watch affair. Here’s what else to know about Green Bay and their often-successful first-year head coach.

Player to watch: Let’s mention two names here. Carrington Love is their key offensive player, averaging over 17 points per game to go with 3.5 assists. Jordan Fouse is also an important cog though, as the do-everything wing averages over 12 points, eight rebounds and three assists to go with two steals and over a block per game. Both Love and Fouse were named to the Horizon League’s All-Defense team, with Love making the league’s overall first team and Fouse making its second team.

The Vitals:

    • Record: 23-12 overall, 111-7 in the Horizon League (No. 4 seed)
    • Most recent tournament appearance: 1996 (As a No. 8 seed, the Phoenix lost to No. 9 seed Virginia Tech by 12)
    • Jerry Palm predicts: 15 seed
    • RPI: 125
    • KenPom ranking: 115
    • Sagarin ranking: 124
    • Best wins: Valparaiso, Akron
    • Worst losses: Youngstown State
    • Notable stat: 24.7. Green Bay scores 24.7 points per game in transition according to Synergy, far outpacing the second-place team in the country. Monmouth scores the second-most points in transition nationally at 21.5 points. The difference statistically between Green Bay and Monmouth in second place is about the same difference between Monmouth and 27th place Washington. So yeah, this team really gets out and runs.

Closing quip: When Green Bay beat Valparaiso in the semifinals of the Horizon tournament, there was a sense of disappointment. The Crusaders have one of the best defenses in the country, are in the top 40 of KenPom, and seemed like a team that could have done real damage in the NCAA Tournament. Now, it looks like the Crusaders will be out — barring a surprising at-large bid — with the Phoenix replacing them. If we aren’t going to get Bryce Drew and company in the dance though, this is at least a nice consolation prize. Green Bay has an excellent style of play that will be enjoyable to watch, and a great story with a new head coach earning his stripes in just Year One.

Green Bay is going dancing after a 20-year absence. (USATSI)
Green Bay is going dancing after a 20-year absence. (USATSI)

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