PantherU

A Jerk’s Guide to the Green Bay Phoenix

PantherU has decided to forego the usual ho-hum season previews of basketball teams in the Horizon League, instead…well…we’re just gonna trash your team in the style of Deadspin (yeah, we’re not even covering up that we’re ripping them off). For years, PantherU has been second only to the Horizon League office in pissing off Horizon League hoops fans, and it’s high time we embraced the villain. It’s all in good fun, so don’t take it seriously and be ready to enjoy the previews. If you are a fan of a Horizon League team and you want to be a part of trashing your own team, feel free to send all to jimmy@pantheru.com.

The team: Green Bay Phoenix

2014 record: 24-7 (14-2 Horizon League)

The coach: Brian Wardle, who has spent more time than any head coach in history defending himself from rumors that he forced a seven footer to run conditioning so much he shit his pants. Usually coaches are compared mostly to the guys they replace, so Green Bay is lucky to have Brian Wardle. Because the alternative is year 15-ish of the Tod Kowalczyk regime, which would start to look eerily like the Jimmy Collins years at UIC. That’s good for all involved; Kowalczyk is making it work for him at Toledo, and Wardle is doing what neither Kowalczyk nor Mike Heideman could do at GB: hang banners. Correction: hang banner. Because the Phoenix won the 2014 Horizon League regular season title, which is such a big deal.

While everyone has spent the past two years shlobbing the Phoenix for being the best team on paper, I’ve reserved judgment – you know, beyond the usual archrival hate. Brian Wardle was always a good guy, so “hating” him never made too much sense – kind of like when Buzz took over Marquette, this film of douchey luster kind of came off hating Marquette. Like Tom Crean, Kowalczyk was an insufferable turd. Wardle is a genuine good guy, which made last year’s accusations and player departures all the more surprising.

But that’s the thing – players leave the Phoenix more than any other team in the conference in the four years since Wardle has taken over. Why is that? It could be because in practice that he’s malicious, overbearing and a drill sergeant. I’m guessing he’s basically just cycled out the scraps of Kowalczyk’s regime. I mean seriously, we’re talking about transfers like Clayton Heuer, who would have no business on Whitewater’s roster let alone Green Bay’s roster.

The star: Keifer Sykes, the easiest answer to “who is your team’s star?” in the country. Sykes has speed, he has body control, ball control, he can rack up assists. He can score on the drive, score in the post, score more than most. He’s going to get a look at the NBA like Norris Cole, but unlike Norris Cole I don’t expect him to stick around for a long time. For one, he doesn’t have the height. If Norris Cole were 5’11” and not 6’2″, he would be in Europe. He has just enough height, and that’s because he’s 6’5″ with the high top.

So that’s my suggestion to Keifer Sykes. High top. Go full on House Party up in the Resch, and you can fool NBA scouts into drafting you in the first round. You’ve got enough talent to get there, but it’s not going to work unless you go full out.

That said, people can’t get enough of him. He’s an electrifying player, the runaway preseason player of the year in the conference, deservedly so. He’s had articles about him all over the place: ESPN, Sporting News, NBC Sports, everyone wants a piece of him. And that may be exactly the reason he could bomb. Kid gets all the limelight, wilts under the lights.

Is that gonna happen? Of course not. He scored 32 in a losing effort to Wisconsin last season.

Could be worse: You could be the kid in the second row of the conference tournament semifinals who spent the entire game taunting Milwaukee fans only to crumble in a ball of tears when the team lost. Oh, I’m sorry, did I say kid? I meant to say grown ass man. We had one guy, who must be one of the six or seven dudes who stalks the Phear the Phoenix message board, yelling at us in the UWM fan section. For the entire game. The usual Green Bay-to-Milwaukee standby’s were there – thugs, muggings, pretty much everything he could say without busting out racial slurs against our players. His friends would chuckle when he’d say something clever, but largely they were embarrassed to be sitting with him. Pretty much how my friends act when they sit with me at Brewers games.

Except this guy was angry. Very angry. Once the game was settled – right when Matt Tiby pulled in the rebound with fifteen seconds left in overtime and Milwaukee up by three – he just buckled, a heap of sweat and tears. And this brings me to my point. It could be worse. Keifer Sykes could have graduated too. But he didn’t, and now Green Bay’s got one more last chance before their number is punched for good. What do I mean by that?

This is the worst: Educated fans of the Phoenix know that Green Bay is a school that has achieved at a very high level in basketball despite the fact that their budget is comparable only to Youngstown State near the bottom of the league. Finances sure aren’t everything, that is for sure. But the amount of money you put into your program is how you get on the field of play. The athletic department in Division I needs to run 14 sports, with a minimum of scholarships per sport. They need to pay for employees, for travel and for equipment. They need to pay for ticket takers, ushers and referees. Essentially, without the athletic department, Keifer Sykes has no jersey to put on, no shoes to lace up, no ball to dribble.

Like everything, costs are so much higher than they used to be. Green Bay’s athletics budget in 2013 of $7.44 million would have been one of the highest in the conference a decade ago. In fact, they used to have a comparable budget to what they have now. The rest of the conference outpaces them, in a huge way. Where Green Bay is hovering around seven-and-a-half million, the next smallest budget belongs to Wright State. The Raiders maintain a budget of $10.2 million, over $2.5 million than the smallest budget in the conference.

It’s a bit more muddled in men’s basketball budget alone, as Green Bay outpaces Youngstown State by $65,000 and is only $330,000 per year behind the 7th-highest spending school, Oakland. But Green Bay fans shouldn’t let themselves get a sense of safety; the fact of the matter is the berth between them and the rest of the conference gets bigger every year. They only outspend YSU because the Penguins’ biggest money maker is football, so all their extra money goes into that sport.

Even if YSU got rid of football, their budget would still be a shade under $10 million and far ahead of Green Bay. The point is, Green Bay is falling further and further behind the rest of the conference in the money factor, and that’s going to be a big deal for the future.

How does that make a difference in men’s basketball? Well, when your middling coach is courted by a crappy MAC program, you’d like to be able to afford to keep him if you like. There was no way Green Bay was going to drop the money to keep Kowalczyk. How about when Wardle comes up and says, “Hey, Ball State is offering me 300k per year.” If the Phoenix decide to match, they’re going to have to stretch their already thin budget thinner. Which means they’ll have to cut from somewhere else. The recruiting budget. The operations budget. Women’s basketball.

At some point, not far down the road, the Phoenix are going to have to make these decisions. And at a point not far beyond that, they’re going to have to decide whether or not Division I sports are worth cutting into the budget of the science department.

But Jimmy, you ask…why won’t Green Bay just raise their budget when they get to that fork in the road? Because they can’t. Here’s why.

In the Horizon League, schools pay for things like other schools – ticket sales, “television revenue” (we have none), money from the NCAA Tournament units. But we each get a lot of our budgets from student fees that are part of tuition.

Say the budgets of all the schools will go up $2 million per year over the next couple years. Different schools have different ways of playing catch-up, but at the end of the day it’s about enrollment. The more students you have, the more you can spread out that $2 million. For 30,000 students at Milwaukee, $2 million accounts for about $33 per semester. Not nothing, but not a number that even the most ardent anti-athletics student is going to protest.

The fewer the students, the larger the increase per student. For Youngstown State’s 15,000 students, that increase is going to be $66 per semester. Is it a lot? Sure, but still it isn’t backbreaking money for tuition that’s $5,000 per semester. $5,066 and $5,000 are the same.

Keep going smaller, the more money you need. Green Bay is, after YSU, the smallest public school in the conference. For them to raise $2 million per year out of their student body, they would need to raise tuition $153 per semester – a huge number. That wouldn’t be as much as it would be for smaller schools Valparaiso and Detroit, but then again Valpo and Detroit are private schools – they have much larger tuition, so $15,150 looks not much different than $15,000. So the private schools are protected increasing tuition by already exorbitant numbers, and the public schools can spread it out over a ton of students.

Except Green Bay. They have the smaller public tuition and a private-level enrollment, only 6,549. Those numbers don’t provide them the protection to increase tuition by 3% just to support the same exact program as the year before. To put that in perspective, Green Bay is the 11th-largest out of 13 UW System four-year institutions. Only Superior and River Falls are smaller schools than Green Bay. And they ain’t paying for a Division I athletics program.

At the end of the day, there are only so many times Green Bay can increase tuition to just keep doing what they’ve been doing. Inflation and increased competition are driving Green Bay closer and closer to the brink, and at some point the university is going to have to decide whether or not it’s worth it to dip into the academic budget to keep them in Division I. And again. And again.

Which is why Green Bay’s fans are so desperate for that NCAA Tournament run that eluded them this year. It’s why they are so desperate to get back to the tournament next spring. It’s because of this: if they couldn’t get there with senior Alec Brown and junior Keifer Sykes, and they can’t get there with senior Keifer Sykes, will they ever get there?

The death knell for Green Bay athletics is down the road. It may be 10 years away. But it’s there. Slenderman is over their shoulder.

Look forward to: But I don’t want it to happen. We’ve already had our archrival Butler, who didn’t see us as their rival despite the 12-10 record against us to the end of the series, leave. Life would be a whole lot less exciting if Green Bay wasn’t there to play our foil, and we weren’t able to play theirs. So what does Green Bay have to look forward to? Watching Keifer Sykes as a senior. Norris Cole, Shelvin Mack, there are only a few guards I’ve seen in my 10 years of watching the Horizon League who I would call as good or better than Sykes.

Plainly put, this whole season should be a treat. Will the Phoenix finally get over the hump and get in the tournament? Who knows. If they get in though, Sykes could light the world on fire.

Hey, how about that: No Horizon League team has as many conference victories since 2000 without reaching the NCAA Tournament. So, you have that to hang your hat on!

What Green Bay fans have to say:

Nothing. They have nothing to say.

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