Green Bay wasn't supposed to be here, at least not this year. Just a couple of years ago the Phoenix were 14-2 in the Horizon League behind conference legend Keifer Sykes. They lost in their first conference tournament game after a double bye.
Similar disappointment would happen a year ago when the Phoenix couldn't manage to win the championship game on the road at Valparaiso, who would repeat as regular season champions again this year. Comfortably, I might add. The Crusaders and their lofty KenPom ranking beat everyone else in the field by a full three games.
But behind first-year head coach Linc Darner and a Sykes-loss roster, Green Bay won four games in four days in Detroit a couple of weeks ago to earn their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The fourth-seeded Phoenix dished out the disappointment this time, sending Valpo to the NIT with an overtime victory in the semifinals before finishing the job with a convincing win over Wright State in the finals.
Their reward for making the Big Dance for the first time since 1996? A first round match-up with the SEC co-champion Texas A&M Aggies.
It's the second time the Phoenix will be playing as a 14 seed in the tournament. Last time, the program nearly beat third-seeded Purdue - Darner's alma mater - losing by just one point in a 49-48 shootout. No, Darner didn't play in the game. He had finished his playing career just a year before.
Can the Phoenix pull the upset this time around and earn their second NCAA win in program history? It's going to take a lot. The Aggies are a long, defensive-minded group that will try and force Green Bay to slow down the fast pace the Phoenix are comfortable with.
That's not to say A&M can't score. The Aggies average 75.9 points per contest and are led by two wing scorers - Jalen Jones and Danuel House - that both average 15.5 points per game. Freshman big man Tyler Davis may actually be the toughest matchup for Green Bay. Davis is athletic at 6-10 and 265 pounds, averaging 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest.
The Phoenix have had a balanced offense all season, but they'll need the trio of Carrington Love, Charles Cooper, and Jordan Fouse to continue their strong play they displayed all season. They did as much in Detroit. Fouse, Cooper, and Kenneth Lowe will be instrumental in keeping Davis and Jones off the glass for the Aggies. If the Phoenix are giving up offensive rebounds, it's going to be a long night and a short stay in the festivities.
In order to stick with Texas A&M, Green Bay will need to heat up from the outside. The Aggies' defense invites you to shoot a lot of three-pointers and those that have hit a high percentage, have given themselves the best opportunity to win. That's not the way Green Bay likes to generate a lot of their offense, but Love, Fouse, Khalil Small, and Turner Botz off the bench are all capable.
The Phoenix will obviously look to try and create turnovers so that they can get out and run. Texas A&M isn't immune to such mistakes and if Green Bay speeds them up, that might be their best chance to win.
Ultimately, I don't see Green Bay pulling the upset. Teams that are victorious in their position usually win because they can exploit the more talented team's weaknesses. I just don't see that happening this time around.
Texas A&M 85, Green Bay 77