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The Phoenix Have Risen in Sundance Wicks’ First Season at Green Bay

Three wins last season — already 15 this season. Green Bay’s turnaround nothing short of magical.

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

“How do you create magic?”

That is the question that Green Bay men’s basketball coach Sundance Wicks weighed after a 79-71 win over Cleveland State Jan. 14.

“It’s one of those things where you watch enough basketball, and there’s some things you can explain and some you can’t,” he said.

After the Phoenix finished last season with a 3-29 record — tied with Cal for the worst record in college basketball — the team’s accomplishments in Wicks’ first year at the helm are nothing short of magic.

“There was no better job in the country than Green Bay,” Wicks surmised at his introductory press conference in March 2023, “and I can tell you why. Where can we go? Up.”

It took less than a month for UWGB to surpass the three-win plateau, and the team has only improved from there. Green Bay sits at 15-9, and its 10-3 mark in Horizon League play puts it atop the conference.

Per college basketball analytics guru Andrew Weatherman, no first-year coach has engineered a larger increase from their team’s preseason to current KenPom rating (adjusted efficiency margin) than Wicks’ Green Bay squad.

“It’s a challenge, yes. It’s a unique obstacle, yes. But why not run into the fire?” Wicks speculated. “Why not come to this job? Why not come to Green Bay? That’s my call.”

A New Era

In a decidedly football-first town, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay basketball has carved out a modest existence in the shadow of Lambeau Field.

The UWGB women’s basketball program has never experienced a losing season in 33 years of play and is coming off a recent stretch of 17 NCAA Tournament appearances in 21 years.

On the men’s side, Green Bay’s forte is exporting savvy head coaches. UWGB was the Division-I coaching launch point for Dick Bennett, who later led Wisconsin to the Final Four. More recent coaches include Tod Kowalczyk — who has seven postseason appearances at Toledo since joining the Rockets in 2010 — and Bradley head coach Brian Wardle, on pace for a fifth 20-win campaign with the Braves. Despite the bevy of coaching talent to take the floor at the Resch Center, the Green Bay men’s team has just one NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 28 seasons (2015-16).

Sundance Wicks is poised to change that. The fiery Wyoming native had two years of head coaching experience at Missouri Western from 2018-20 before spending the last two years as an assistant to Jeff Linder at Wyoming. Coaching a pro-style offense with stars like Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike in 2022, Linder and Wicks led the Cowboys to their first at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament in 20 years.

Wyoming was a nine-win team the year before Wicks joined the staff in 2020. The new Green Bay coach is already engineering a similar turnaround on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Building Belief

Inheriting a 3-28 team with just two players is not an ideal situation to take over. Wicks embraced the empty slate, using it as an opportunity to bring in his type of guys.

“Eleven of the 13 guys on this roster, their only scholarship offer was to Green Bay,” Wicks noted. “All of these guys were the guys that were under-recruited, under-evaluated, and have overachieved.”

Elijah Jones is the team’s second-leading scorer at 8.8 PPG, a better scoring average than he achieved at community college last year at John A. Logan. Jones — the first commit of the Wicks era — is hitting 75% of his two-point attempts against Horizon League opponents.

Foster Wonders, a rarely-used bench player for Southern Illinois as a redshirt freshman last year, is shooting 45.7% from deep in conference play. He was a 33% shooter from deep a season ago.

Five Phoenix players have an offensive rating of 123.0 or better in conference play, but haven’t been more efficient than David Douglas Jr. Douglas — who had no DI offers out of high school — has three 20-point games in his last four contests and is a three-time Horizon League Freshman of the Week.

How does Sundance Wicks get the most out of these overlooked players?

“They believe in each other,” Wicks said of this Phoenix team. “They believe in the work. They believe in the art of having an edge.”

These forgotten players formed the foundation for this season’s success, but the addition of one of the best scorers in the transfer portal — Noah Reynolds — became the team’s catalyst.

Reynolds was Wyoming’s second-leading scorer a year ago, averaging 14.5 PPG. He had five straight contests in non-conference play with at least 20 points before missing the last month of the season with a concussion. The 6-foot-3-inch guard entered the portal in March 2023, drawing significant high-major attention. Within a month, he committed to Wisconsin, a decision that lasted just two weeks when Reynolds decided to re-open his commitment.

“I didn’t think that would be the best situation for what I was looking for,” Reynolds later noted.

After reopening his recruitment, he received calls from Power Conference schools like Miami (FL), Florida, and Ohio State. But a pair of powerful personal connections led the former Wyoming star to enroll at Green Bay.

Reynolds’ brother Nic is on the UWGB staff, and the junior played his first two collegiate seasons under Sundance Wicks — then an assistant at Wyoming. Reynolds embraced the challenge of a rebuild.

“Building something from the ground up is something I’ve always taken pride in. I knew the value of time rather than money,” he said. “I think I understood the value of family and sticking with the people who trusted you in the beginning.”

Building on that trust, Reynolds has been nothing short of a revelation for the Phoenix. He has established himself as a frontrunner for Conference Player of the Year, averaging 19.3 PPG on the season and upping that mark to 20.8 PPG during league play. He is also the conference’s leader in assists.

The team grappled through a difficult non-conference slate with trips to Big 12 schools Iowa State and Oklahoma. This battle-tested team found its groove when Horizon League play came around.

Last Man Standing

For a team with such little experience, Coach Wicks’ squad has impressed with its ability to close out games.

“‘Everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the mouth,’” Wicks said to WFRV reporter Kyle Malzhan in Green Bay, quoting the great Mike Tyson. “Once you get punched in the mouth, we’re going to find out what we’re made of. You’re either pumping blood or Kool-Aid, and I hope we’re pumping blood.”

UWGB has taken its share of punches this year. The team has trailed by at least five points in eight of its nine HL wins this season — including a pair of comebacks after deficits of more than 10 points.

In the final game of the calendar year, Green Bay used a 17-5 second-half run and a subsequent 14-0 stretch to overturn a 10-point deficit and defeat a mighty Wright State team 88-77. Reynolds had a career-high 39 points in that contest, the first of five 30-point games on the season. A few weeks later, a late 14-1 run put away Cleveland State — a result again fueled by the Resch Center crowd.

“Every time we come back into the Resch, it gets rowdier,” Wicks said in a recent postgame presser. “I hear the stories of Wardle and Kowalczyk when they were 5,000, 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 strong. We need that at some point, and it will get there.”

For a 69-59 win over Oakland on Jan. 25, 3,153 fans watched the Phoenix climb to first place in the Horizon League. UWGB used a patented 9-0 run to pull away in the final minutes.

While the Phoenix have an undefeated record at home during the conference slate, they also faced the league’s toughest remaining league schedule — not that Sundance Wicks has retreated from a fight this season.

“We talked about the Field of Dreams now — if you build it, they will come,” Wicks said. “Well, it’s being built; bring your ass out.”