It’s that one strategy Phoenix head coach Brian Wardle knows won’t work.
“Keifer Sykes? One-on-one? No thank you,” he said, laughing.
The UW-Green Bay head coach and star guard ran through individual drills before practice Thursday. With Wardle guarding Sykes loosely – both covered in sweat and discussing select moves between repetitions – the coach pushed the players to reach his potential but it also worked the other way around.
“It comes from coach – an extension of coach – him wanting to win and instilling hard work into the players,” Syke said of their work ethic and mentality of constant improvement. The senior guard is averaging a team-best 19.2 points per game this season while the Phoenix sit firmly atop the Horizon League as they travel to face Cleveland State and Wright State over the next few days.
“Coaches work hard too with film, preparation and coach dissecting the shots that I miss and him spending time with me going over it. It’s really obsessive and it carries on through the team,” he continued.
Wardle has begun to limit Sykes minutes in practice to save him for the games (on average, he plays 34.9 minutes per contest) as they’ve gotten deeper into conference play. That doesn’t mean either is taking it easy though, far from it.
“The extra work doesn’t stop,” Wardle asserted. “Like I told him, ‘Don’t stop being obsessive with improving’ because that’s what he’s been his whole career. He’s just obsessive with improvement and he’s continued that.”
Since averaging 11.2 points per games as a freshman, Sykes has improved his game. He’s become a more versatile scorer with an array of shots as well as being more efficient in those attempts. He’s become a better leader and put himself in position to possibly make the challenging jump to the next level – the NBA.
His advancement as a player is thanks – at least in part – to the tutelage of his head coach. Wardle himself was a standout at Marquette not so long ago (averaged 14.4 points over four seasons from 1997-2001) but his lessons are more heard than seen.
“I’d challenge him in three-point H-O-R-S-E, maybe, that’s it,” the head coach said of the hypothetical challenge with Sykes. “But I want to keep my knees in place, my achilles in place and my ankles in place. He would break my ankles if I even tried to guard him seriously.”
“Those days of coach scoring the basketball are pretty much over,” Sykes noted. “He can definitely shoot the basketball so I’ll want to crowd him so it’ll be tough with him being that big but I think his scoring days are pretty much over.”
In one-on-one, Sykes holds the advantage (conceded). In a shooting contest though, who would win that is up for debate. But together, the player-coach relationship and drive gives the Phoenix a major advantage in the Horizon League.