Wis.-Green Bay-Kentucky Preview

AMES, Iowa (AP)—Outside of the Midwest, not a ton of people know just how good Green Bay is.

Regionally, the attention paid to the powerhouse Phoenix can be suffocating.

With a staggering 14 consecutive Horizon League titles, Green Bay (31-1) has set the bar so high that anything less than a blowout win in conference play can be seen as a disappointment.

It’s set up a strange scenario where, for the seventh-seeded Phoenix, the NCAA tournament is almost a breather. They certainly looked relaxed in their opener, pounding host Iowa State 71-57 to set up an intriguing second-round matchup against No. 2 seed Kentucky (26-6) on Monday night.

“In the Horizon League, it’s hard to make shots because there’s so much pressure on us. We’re expected to win every time and by more than a few points,” Green Bay coach Matt Bollant said. “This is the first time since the nonconference season that, you know what, we can just go play. We didn’t have all those expectations. You could see that in practice. They were relaxed. They knew they could just go play.”

By contrast, the Wildcats looked tight in struggling to get past 15th-seeded McNeese State 68-62 on Saturday.

Kentucky entered the NCAA tournament as the nation’s leader in turnover margin, averaging nearly 11 more takeaways than its opponents. But the Wildcats were extremely sloppy with the ball against McNeese State—at least by their lofty standards—with 20 turnovers.

SEC Player of the Year A’dia Mathies led the way with five of them, but that was just one of the reasons she had one of the worst games of her storied career. Mathies shot 2 of 10 from the floor and grabbed only two rebounds in a foul-plagued 18 minutes.

The Wildcats still had enough to get past an overmatched McNeese State, but they’ll need more out of Mathies against the Phoenix.

“She needs to play like a player of the year. I think she really needs to step up and have a strong will and not let things bother her,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We need a big performance from her, definitely.”

Green Bay also has its league’s player of the year in Julie Wojta, a versatile 6-footer who is averaging 19.6 points and 10 rebounds. But Wojta and guard Lydia Bauer are the tallest players on the Phoenix, and even in defeat Iowa State outrebounded them 34-22.

Kentucky’s size and athleticism could prove to be a major challenge for Green Bay, whose winning formula involves strong perimeter shooting and relentless defense—but not necessarily controlling the boards.

The Wildcats will likely try to get the Phoenix out of sync by pressing them early and often. Bollant compared Kentucky to a stronger shooting version of Georgia Tech, who Green Bay beat 67-62 in overtime Nov. 26.

“It’ll just be important for us to slow the game down and make smart passes, make ball fakes and try to attack it,” Wojta said. “If they’re trying to play 94 feet, if we can make a couple quick simple passes, push it down the floor and try to run on them, I think that will help us.”

Despite their seeding, Green Bay was ranked 10th, two spots higher than No. 12 Kentucky, in the AP Top 25.

“They’re clearly in my mind the best seventh seed,” Mitchell said. “You just put them on the screen and let the kids see it, and I don’t think it’s going to be too much trouble convincing them how hard we’re going to have to play. This will be as big a challenge as we’ve seen.”