GREEN BAY, Wis. — The whispers started trickling down the sideline at Green Bay Packers training camp when the noted basketball player showed up.
In Titletown, Keifer Sykes is kind of a big deal.
Maybe this is the year that mid-major Green Bay gets into the NCAA tournament, and Sykes gets a national stage to show off his backcourt skills.
“There are no guarantees to make it into the tournament,” Sykes said. “In mid-major basketball, you lose one possession and that can be the difference in making the tournament and not making the tournament, no matter how many games you win.”
It happened last year when the Phoenix finished 24-7 and won the Horizon League before falling in its conference tournament. Their resume wasn’t impressive enough to secure an at-large bid.
Sykes averaged 20.3 points, 4.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game on a team that also included center Alec Brown, who was drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Suns.
Sykes is back for his senior year, surrounded by a deep and experienced team picked to win the Horizon again. He attended Los Angeles Clippers’ point guard Chris Paul’s summer camp for elite college point guards. He’s on the Wooden Award’s preseason top 50 players to watch for the honor of college basketball’s top player.
No wonder people in Green Bay take notice when the 6-foot Sykes is around.
“It is kind of weird because I’ve been like everywhere here,” Sykes said. “It’s kind of nice to see how you can affect people. It helps me stay positive because I know that I can’t do anything crazy if people recognized who I am.”
Really, the only crazy things that Sykes does are on the court. Check out some of the highlights of Sykes dunking on YouTube.
“I can score the basketball. There will be the games when I have to score the basketball,” Sykes said. “But with the team we have, we have so many weapons, I’m not sure that I have to do that. Those guys will help me get more assists this year.”
Besides Sykes, Green Bay returns three other starters including senior forward Greg Mays, who averaged 10.9 points on 58 percent shooting last season. The players who accounted for more than 70 percent of the team’s points and rebounds from 2013-14 are back for another run at the Horizon title and an NCAA tourney berth.
Green Bay coach Brian Wardle describes the 6-foot-9 Mays, a senior, as one of the league’s most underappreciated players who “has gotten better every year, who has matured physically and mentally in the game.” Wardle said Mays came to Green Bay as a “raw, upside player” out of high school in Chicago, which is also Sykes’ hometown.
The game against the Badgers is a chance for Green Bay to gain respect. The basketball team for the Wisconsin system’s flagship campus deservedly hogs the basketball attention in the state following its run to the Final Four last spring.
Against Wisconsin, Sykes will have a tough matchup against Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson. Both Sykes and Jackson attended Paul’s point guard camp.
A year ago, Green Bay lost the matchup 69-66 at home after Sykes’ potential game-tying 3-pointer bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
“That is a great measuring stick game,” Wardle said. “Pending the result, we expect to go in and win and play well — but I always tell the players to focus on the process, not the results.”
Green Bay is 1-0 after beating Illinois-Springfield in its season opener. Sykes had an ideal line for a scoring point guard, with 22 points on 8 of 11 shooting, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range. But Sykes also had six assists to no turnovers.
“Anyone who knows Keifer Sykes knows he has put that time in, he’s put that work in to improve,” Wardle said. “He knows going into this year he doesn’t have to score 20 a night to win. He just needs to change the game on both ends to help this team win.