|Posted by Brian Dickmann on February 11, 2015 at 10:10 PM|
If the Green Bay Phoenix are going to repeat as Horizon League regular season champions or advance to their first NCAA Tournament since 1996, they are going to need steady contributions from players other than Keifer Sykes.
The Phoenix have gotten big games from Carrington Love and Greg Mays this season, but Alfonzo McKinnie has been getting into the act as well lately with two impressive double-doubles in two games, including a GB-career high 24 points in last week's victory over Milwaukee to complete the season sweep.
It was his best game of his Phoenix career so far, one that has been plagued by a nagging knee injury he suffered in the pre-season prior to last year. He tore his meniscus but was able to contribute down the stretch last season, making 9 appearances and averaging 4.6 points and 2.8 rebounds while playing around 12 minutes per game.
With having to sit out a full season after transferring to Green Bay from Eastern Illinois, then followed by the knee injury, McKinnie basically went 2 seasons without playing basketball.
"I'm still getting to 100%," McKinnie said prior to this season at the team's media day. "I'm still rehabbing every day. I kind of took the summer off as far as working out, basketball wise. I pretty much got stronger, did rehab, and did physical therapy a lot just to get my knee strong for this season."
Green Bay has kept the senior on a practice routine this season limiting his chances of re-injuring the knee and it has contributed to McKinnie being able to play important minutes this season.
"He's a good player," head coach Brian Wardle said during Monday night's Inside Phoenix Basketball show on WNFL. "He's healthy, we're sticking to our routine. (Athletic trainer) Jeremy Cleven has done an unbelievable job with him keeping him focused on his rehab and strengthening because we need him."
"He's a difference maker when he's playing with good pace and tempo and under control. He can really change a game because he plays so hard."
McKinnie is averaging 8.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game so far in conference play but has made a big time impact in the last two games, scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the win vs Milwaukee as well as 14 points and 10 rebounds in the squeaker of a win at Youngstown State.
"He's a talented player," Wardle said. "He's been a little inconsistent, but I have to remind myself, let alone our staff and everyone, that he was out for 2 years. He really didn't play any organized basketball, other than practice with us, for 2 years. It takes time to get your rhythm back and your timing back and all those little things."
McKinnie's versatility also proves valuable for the Phoenix. He has the strength and athleticism to play inside as well as the shooting stroke to step outside and hit threes.
"We're moving him around, from playing the 3-man on the perimeter, to 5, to the 4," said Wardle. "We're moving him all around just to get him on the floor and get him more minutes. It's definitely helping our team."
Still, the aggressiveness and athleticism sometimes causes him to be too greedy. His 80 fouls this season ranks 3rd in the Horizon League, averaging 3.3 per game and fouling out 4 times this season.
"We need him on the floor," Wardle said. "His motor is so high there's a few times where he just fouls and it has to stop. We need him on the floor because he makes a lot of things happen for us. If we can keep him out of foul trouble that's going to be big for us because he's a good player."
After using a 14-5 run to escape Youngstown State with a 63-62 victory on Wednesday night, Green Bay will face it's toughest test of the conference season thus far on Friday night when they travel to Valparaiso to take on the Crusaders. Both teams are tied atop the Horizon League standings, along with Cleveland State, with identical 9-2 records. All three teams have 5 games remaining, including games against each first place team.
The regular season champion receives the #1 seed and hosts the Horizon League Tournament to see who will advance to the NCAA Tournament.
"We have nothing to lose," Wardle said following the team's narrow victory in Youngstown on Wednesday night. "The pressure's been on us every game in conference. This is the first one where I feel we have no pressure. We're going in there to play and we're going to go in there and be aggressive. They have pressure. They have to win this game at home and on national television."
Friday night's game tips off at 6:00 and will be broadcast live on ESPN2. Green Bay beat the Crusaders 51-50 last month at the Resch Center in a game that was a defensive struggle.
"I'm very excited to get in there and see how our guys compete. Do we have to play better? No doubt we do. We just have play a little bit smarter at times. We'll go in there and play our hearts out on Friday night."