Roster facelift brings optimism
Phoenix men return just four players
By Greg Bates
GREEN BAY – “Final Four” is a term floating around the Green Bay men’s basketball team this season.
In college basketball, that’s usually an ultimate end goal for a team, cutting down the nets as one of the top teams in the country.
For the Phoenix, “Final Four” takes on a different meaning.
After going 5-25 last season, Green Bay had 11 players either transfer out or were released from the program. A roster facelift was needed with just four players returning to the squad this season.
Cade Meyer, Nate Jenkins, Randy Tucker and Brayden Dailey are Green Bay’s “Final Four.”
“Of course, we can’t do it by ourselves,” said Jenkins, a junior guard. “We need five players on the basketball court, so we’ve just been welcoming, showing the guys the ropes and they’ve been along for the ride.”
Third-year coach Will Ryan brought in 10 new players to fill out the roster. It’s a group of junior college guys and incoming freshmen with some local talent mixed in.
“There’s a learning curve, but we’re excited about that and everyone brings a different skill to the court,” Jenkins said. “Just excited to learn, see what everyone’s doing, what everyone’s capable of and we’ll learn more as the season grows.”
It’s a group that excites Ryan.
“In the recruiting process, we sought out guys with some experience,” Ryan said. “A couple of our young guys, Davin Ziegler and Garren Davis, those guys have Division I experience under their belt, and so they’re not newbies in that regard. Then the real young freshmen that we brought, they’ve had some really good experience at the high school level, based on AAU, grassroots basketball. So, they’ve played against some really good competition.”
Ryan and his coaching staff opted for guys that are gym rats.
“Doing our due diligence in the recruiting process, I think we did a really great job of getting those types of guys that love the game,” said Ryan, who has a 13-42 record at Green Bay. “The last couple years I wouldn’t say that everybody had that same drive, and these guys are very like-minded in that regard.”
Green Bay will rely on its top two returners in Meyer and Jenkins.
Meyer started all 30 games last season at forward and was fourth on the team in scoring (9.1 points) and second in rebounds (4.3). The Monroe, Wis. native was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team.
There will be a little more weight on Meyer’s shoulder this season as a sophomore and one of the leaders on the team.
“He gets it. He’s a humble young man and he puts in an honest day’s work every day and I think the guys feed off that,” Ryan said. “They see — especially the young, big guys — what it takes in the weight room and on the court.”
Jenkins, a guard, started 10 games last season and was sixth on the team in scoring (6.4 points). He will also have to pick up some scoring slack since 72% of Green Bay’s scoring is gone from a season ago.
Tucker started three games as a sophomore but primarily came off the bench to chip in 4.3 points per game. The final returner, Dailey, redshirted a season ago.
Green Bay will feature a young squad with just five upperclassmen, including one senior in guard Ryan Wade, who transferred in from Central Michigan. He appeared in 10 games last season for the Chippewas.
Jenkins knows the team will have to pick up its scoring to make up for points that were lost.
“I don’t think it’s anyone specifically, but as a veteran you want to do what you can — play a right role so you can be as successful as you can as a team,” Jenkins said.
The Phoenix dropped seven games by five points or fewer last season.
“I know we lost a lot of games pretty close last year, so I think if we pick up our defense a little bit,” Meyer said. “We weren’t bad scoring last year at times, so I figure if we pick up our defense and knock in a couple more 3s and I feel like we’ll be pretty well set.”
One reason Green Bay lost those games down the stretch was shooting, especially behind the 3-point arc. As a team, it hit just 28.2% from beyond the line, while its opponents shot 34.5%.
“Three-point shooting, that was our Achilles’ heel last year,” Ryan said. “We did a pretty good job of generating looks and when wide open ones don’t go in, everybody else, they kind of press a little bit. We talk about next shot — next shot’s going in. Keep shooting. We’ve got guys that can shoot.”
Defense will also be a major key. The Phoenix allowed 68.9 points per game to its opponents in 2021-22.
“I think we just have more hard-nosed kids, just kids that want to get up in peoples’ grill,” Meyer said. “I feel like that’s going to be huge for us. We got a couple more big guys that are going to help us on the glass. And I feel like that’s going to be huge. We got some really athletic and physical players in the Horizon League, so I feel like having some bigger, stronger guys and some older guys defensively is going to be huge for us and hopefully we can make an impact.”
After having a rebuild in the offseason, Ryan finally has a roster full of players that he recruited. His first two seasons, Ryan had mostly guys that carried over from the previous coaching regime.
“There’s definitely a different feel, and it’s no slight to the previous guys that were here. We had good relationships with those guys, most of them are great kids,” Ryan said. “It’s different when you’re able to offer that kid a scholarship and talk to him and his family face to face or go to his high school, junior college, prep school, bring them on campus, see how they interact with not only us, but how do they interact with some of our academic people and other people that they’re going to meet on campus.”
During the pandemic, players weren’t able to come onto the Green Bay campus and experience the atmosphere or meet with the coaches. In turn, Ryan couldn’t build relationships with his recruits. That’s back to normal now.
“It’s year three, but in essence, it kind of feels like year one,” Ryan said.
During early-season practices, the energy of the players really got Meyer excited about this year’s team.
“I feel like we’ve got a lot more energy than we did last year,” Meyer said. “A lot of kids have passion to play. Everyone’s getting in the gym, working hard. I just like how close we are already. … We hang out off the court a lot, so I feel like that’s big.”
The Phoenix have gone just 12-28 in the Horizon League in Ryan’s first two seasons. But he’s confident his guys can be more competitive this year.
“We’re trying to compete for a Horizon League championship,” Ryan said. “We talk about it with our guys, that’s kind of the ultimate goal, right. To be the regular-season champs and then the conference tournament, anything can happen. So, your goal is to win both and to hang a banner. It would be nice to put up a banner along with some of the other great teams that have been here.”