One of the lessons Green Bay coach Brian Wardle always emphasizes with his players is to control what they can control, which explains why this week promises to be excruciating.
The Phoenix are pretty much helpless.
Green Bay can do nothing more on the floor to improve its chances of making the NCAA tournament after it fell to rival Milwaukee in the Horizon League semfinals in perhaps the most stunning conference tournament upset so far this March. All Wardle can do now is refocus his players in practice and to make his case to the media for a long-shot NCAA bid in hopes his plea might sway members of the selection committee.
"If we get called, I feel we will make some noise and make the selection committee look smart," Wardle said. "We can be a team fans can really embrace. We play a fun style of basketball, we have talented players and we've got a couple guys who can really do some things that the nation hasn't seen. We'd love the opportunity."
Green Bay's modest No. 60 RPI and woeful No. 165 strength of schedule probably won't help persuade the committee, but there at least a few factors in the Phoenix's favor. They went 24-6, they upset ACC champion Virginia in December and they captured the Horizon League title by two games, assembling a profile not too far off the one Middle Tennessee put together when it snagged one of last year's final at-large bids.
The other factor Wardle hopes the selection committee takes into account is the role that injuries played in some of his team's losses.
Seven-foot pro prospect Alec Brown sat out Green Bay's worst loss of the season at Valparaiso with a shoulder injury that he reaggravated early in Saturday's loss to Milwaukee. Point guard Keifer Sykes, Green Bay's leading scorer, hyperextended his knee in practice Friday and hurt his ankle eight minutes into the first half on Saturday, robbing him of his usual explosiveness.
Brown and Sykes went a combined seven of 26 from the floor and spent more time with trainers than in the huddle during most timeouts. Green Bay rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit to take a four-point lead late in the second half, but Milwaukee forced overtime on a Jordan Aaron layup and outplayed the Phoenix during the extra session.
"It's hard knowing we didn't have Keifer Sykes and Alec Brown healthy at all," Wardle said. "I'm not trying to make excuses, but if the selection committee is factoring in health, we definitely have to be in the mix.
"When we took that lead, I felt pretty good but give Milwaukee credit. They made the big shots down the stretch. They made plays and we did not. That's what it came down to. It was a frustrating game for all of us because we know we needed to get that win."
Green Bay is just one of a handful of small-conference powers who dominated their respective leagues but slipped up in their tournaments.
Vermont lost only one America East game all season yet fell to Albany in the semifinals on the Great Danes' home floor. Davidson also dropped only one game in the Southern Conference yet was upset by Western Carolina in the semifinals. Unlike Green Bay, neither of those two are within sight of the NCAA tournament bubble, meaning they'll both settle for NIT bids.
Some have argued that one-bid conferences would be better served awarding their regular season champion an NCAA tournament bid since it would ensure their representative has the best chance of success. Wardle disagrees even if that system would have benefited his team this season, noting that the conference tournaments bring in revenue and exposure for leagues and are part of the fabric of March.
"You've got to have conference tournaments," Wardle said. "That's my belief. As much as I'd love to sit here and say, 'We were the best team from the Horizon League all year, put us in,' I do think you need conference tournaments. It's tradition in college basketball. It is March Madness. It's what it's all about."
It's indeed part of the agony and ecstasy of March, the possibility of a team rescuing a disappointing regular season with a memorable conference tournament run or the chance of a team squandering a brilliant regular season with a memorable conference tournament collapse.
Wardle believes his team is NCAA tournament-caliber in spite of Saturday's loss. He can only wait helplessly now, however, and hope the selection committee grants Green Bay a reprieve.
"I know we're a good basketball team," Wardle said. "I know we have talented players who can beat anyone on any given night. I'm just going to sit back and let things fall where they may. My big thing is always to control what we can control. We have no control anymore."
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