March Madness: Horizon champs Green Bay out to prove critics wrong
DETROIT – This was last spring, and the introductory meeting between Linc Darner, the freshly-hired coach at Green Bay, Jordan Fouse and Carrington Love, the two returning team leaders.
The new man in town made a promise. He had come to get the two seniors to the NCAA Tournament. They’d be playing a frantic style with constant offense, constant pressure, constantly trying to do . . . something. Outsiders might doubt if it would work at crunch time. But in the end, he assured them, it would.
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The seniors understood they had only one chance left. One chance, he said, is all it would take.
A rather bold vow, at a place that had not seen the NCAA Tournament in 20 years. Then again, Darner was only a few weeks removed from leading Florida Southern to the Division II national championship. Trophies give a coach some currency.
Flash forward to Tuesday night. Introducing your new Horizon League champions, the Green Bay Phoenix, having gone from a projected sixth-place finish in the preseason to earning the fourth seed in the conference tournament to cutting down the nets.
This was Fouse about Darner. “He told us from day one he was going to get Carrington and me to the NCAA Tournament. He kept his word.”
This was Love. “I had two options. Either to say he was full of crap, or believe in him.”
This was Darner. “A lot of people say you don’t want to talk about making the tournament. We talked about it from the beginning.
“We’ve heard a lot this year we couldn’t do it, our style couldn’t win, the way we play and how we play. I think our guys wanted to prove people wrong.”
So here they are, 23-12, having won four Horizon League games in four days. Monday night, they took down No. 1 seed Valparaiso in the semifinals in overtime. Tuesday, they rushed past Wright State 78-69, leading for all but 123 seconds.
"Probably one of the best days of my life," Fouse said. And it all started with that first meeting with Darner.
"He talked with confidence, you could hear it in his voice. He makes you believe what he says. That’s what helped us out all year, just hearing his voice, telling us that we were going to get this NCAA Tournament bid. And that’s where we’re at."
Not up to date on your Green Bay Phoenix? Here are some get-acquainted items.
The last time the Phoenix were in the NCAA Tournament, the talk in Green Bay was about Brett Favre’s chances of getting the Packers to the Super Bowl - in 1996.
They had flirted with it lately, finishing second in the Horizon League last season, first the year before that, but went bump in the night both times in the conference tournament.
“Last two years, we were supposed to get there, and never did. This year, everybody doubted us,’’ Fouse said.
“I don’t want to say it was a lot of pressure,’’ junior guard Charles Cooper said of the need to do it right this time. “Actually, it was a lot of pressure.’’
Darner is an Indiana guy, and was one of Gene Keady’s players at Purdue in 1994 when the No. 1 seed Boilermakers were upset in the Elite Eight by Duke.
He said he still thinks about that Final Four near-miss, but now he’s on a March magic carpet ride. Between the Florida Southern national title last year and Green Bay’s surge, he has won 13 consecutive games in the month.
"We live by the slogan 'RP40,'" Love said. "Relentless pressure for 40 minutes.’’
Their style shows on the stat sheet. Anyone notice going into Tuesday that Green Bay led the nation in steals and free throws, was fourth in turnover margin and turnovers forced, and sixth in scoring?
Darner wanted it that way from the start. The 350 points in the first four games were the most for the Phoenix since 1971. Later, they broke 100 for the first time in a decade, and lost a tough five-pointer at Wisconsin, but not before tormenting the Badgers with a Kohl Center opponent record 26 turnovers and 18 steals.
Darner backs off in practice time – Green Bay didn’t have one walk-thru during the Horizon League tournament – but when the stage lights go on, he wants full throttle.
“Coach said from the beginning nobody wants to see us when we have to play four games in four days,’’ Fouse said. “And he was right. We just ran everybody out of the gym.’’
Not to mention whistled everyone out of the gym. The Phoenix tend to draw fouls with their attacks and slashes. They shot 139 free throws in four league tournament games, 52 alone in the overtime win over Valparaiso.
Because of a scheduling quirk, Green Bay had to play 10 of 12 games on the road in a stretch right in the middle of league play. Think North Carolina has to do that?
The Phoenix went 6-6 in the trial by fire. "I think it put in some toughness,’’ Darner said.
Fouse has started all 133 games in his career at Green Bay, Love has played in all 133. This was to be their team, so they didn’t take kindly to the sixth place prediction last November.
“I felt like that was kind of a shot at me and Carrington,’’ Fouse said. “They were basically saying me and him couldn’t get our team to the point where we’re at today.’’
“It helped our advantage, giving us a chip on our shoulder,’’ Love said.
That chip is now in the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t think people really know how good we are,’’ Fouse said. "We’ve been playing in Valpo’s shadow in this conference. Yesterday, beating them, that was a great win for us.’’
Tuesday’s wasn’t so bad, either.