GREEN BAY – Keifer Sykes remembers them all.
It’s hard to forget some of them. Surviving "March Madness" and claiming a national championship does that to a team, and its players.
But Sykes remembers the other names, too, the ones who are on their second college, who never quite became the star many projected.
It’s funny, though.
Now, nearly everyone knows him as well.
"I love now – I hear this all the time – is, how many people knew how great Keifer was going to be," University of Wisconsin-Green Bay head coach Brian Wardle said, a smile starting to curl in the corner of his mouth.
"They all knew it in high school…"
The smile is broad now.
"It’s amazing to me. Because I go to them, well, why didn’t you recruit him?"
Wardle recalls heading to Chicago years ago, to see Sykes play for John Marshall Metro High School, and the only other college coach in the gym was from Eastern Illinois University.
What Wardle saw, what he fell in love with, was the leader on and off the court, the work ethic. Sykes’ jumper outside of 15-feet was iffy at best, he was thin, and a little loose with the ball.
Oh, and his peers – the high school class of 2011 out of the state of Illinois – were absolutely stacked. So those slight flaws were enough to send his "stock" falling.
In reality, at least in that class, Sykes was just another point guard.
A player from Illinois has won a national championship in each of the last three years, beginning with Anthony Davis and Kentucky 2012. That was followed by Wayne Blackshear and Louisville in 2013 and Ryan Boatright and Connecticut last year. All were consensus all-state picks as seniors.
You also had Chasson Randle, who was named to the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy and Bob Cousy Award preseason watch lists after an all-PAC 12 first team junior year at Stanford.
Preseason All-American Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin is from the Class of ’11. So was his high school point guard, David Sobolewski, who went to Northwestern.
The University of Illinois landed another point guard from Chicago in Tracy Abrams. Toledo snatched a point guard, Julius Brown, from the south suburbs. That class also sent players to Butler, DePaul, Tennessee, New Mexico, Iowa State, Ohio State and Michigan.
Then there was Sykes.
"I mean that class, just looking back at it, I remember the day we had the national signing day it was in the (Chicago) Sun-Times and it was about 40 of us and I’m like, sh*t, it’s a lot of us and I’m lower on the list," he said, leaning forward on a folding chair in the Kress Events Center on the Green Bay campus. "Most of those guys were just high major schools. There were about seven or eight of us that were mid-major. So I’m like, 'wow.'"
He got it. He knew if those point guards were ranked at a certain level nationally, he was going to fall below that. And he was pushed a little further down the list because of the odd national perception of Boatright.
"It was obviously a great class. The start of a really special run in the state," said Sun-Times high school reporter Michael O’Brien, who did include Sykes on his all-area team in the spring of 2011.
"The college success of guys like Ryan Boatright, Keifer Sykes and Julius Brown didn't come as a surprise to most people that follow basketball in the area. For various reasons Ryan Boatright wasn't ranked as highly as he should have been in the national rankings. That led to several guards in the area being even more under-appreciated. If you aren't as good as Boatright, who wasn't in the Top 100 at the start of the high school season, you weren't getting into the Top 100."
Which is why few saw the way Sykes was developing his senior year at Marshall. Wardle was one of them, who tries to stay away from recruiting rankings and the connotations that come with them.
"I know this – he was a winner," Wardle remembered. "His teammates loved playing with him. He won, no matter where he was. That’s what I fell in love with, his leadership ability, his work ethic, and how his teammates embraced him and loved him. And obviously he could play the game."
Added O’Brien: "I remember Keifer Sykes really well. He's one of those kids that just improved a ton his senior year. He helped lead Marshall to state when he was a junior, averaged like 10 points a game. Then he went out and didn't have the best summer. That meant no high-major offers. By the end of his senior year he was doing mind-blowing things on the court, throwing down the kind of powerful, athletic dunks that most six-foot guards could only dream about.
Wardle convinced Sykes to come to Green Bay, and as a freshman in the fall of 2011 he was thrown into the fire. Sykes became the first true freshman to start at point guard for the Phoenix in four years and began producing immediately, scoring the most points as a freshman since Tony Bennett in 1988-89.
"I don’t know if it’s perfect, but looking back it was a great fit," Sykes said of his first year. "When it comes to picking a college, it comes down to a lot of things, like depth, the depth chart, the coaching, and the opportunity and I think a lot of that worked in my favor. Coming here it was a good decision for me and I was able to get on the floor and play and learn through my mistakes and me, just being a student of the game, I’m always looking to get better."
He did get better, and quickly.
Sykes was named to the all-Horizon League first team as a sophomore, and finished the year scoring nearly 16 points per game. Then, last year, he captured the league Player of the Year honors as the Phoenix won the regular season conference title, averaging 20.3 points, 4.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds.
He was an honorable mention All-American pick, as well.
Sykes kind of laughs at it all, at how he’s put himself in position to be considered not only an NBA draft pick this summer, but the greatest player Green Bay has ever produced.
"My hard work and a ton of luck, a ton of luck, it takes a lot of luck in college basketball to do well and do the things that I’ve done," he said. "I just thank God and I’m just happy I was one of the lucky guys and that the coaching staff trusted and believed in me to put me out there and you now me, the type of guy I am, I just try to find my way in any situation and that’s what I’ve done so far."
Heading into his final year in Green Bay, Sykes was named to the Naismith Trophy Watch List, which is given at the end of the year to the top college player in the country, and a consensus pick as the Horizon League’s preseason player of the year.
Through 20 games, Sykes is living up to that expectation, averaging 19.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4 assists as the Phoenix are once again the best team in the conference.
This time last year, he may have thought about those things.
But an upset loss to UW-Milwaukee in the Horizon League tournament that left the Phoenix sitting home during the NCAA tournament still stings, and has given him a second chip on his shoulder to balance the one placed there in 2011.
"I like to be honest – honestly, yeah, it was hard to block out all the attention we were getting," he said. "We were all young, it was all new to us, new to the program, and we’d never seen it. We were getting a lot of attention last year and people throwing us in the NCAA brackets and really high just because of the wins that we had, and they’re assuming we’d win the conference tournament.
He continued: "So, it was hard when you watch the selection show and you’re not in, and that’s the biggest goal you had of your career. It definitely was a reality check and it made us work that much harder. And it just gave us a sense of awareness that we needed. Just being aware that whatever you work for you have to work to get it, and you have to go get it and you have to go take it and that’s the mindset we have this year."
The extra work is nothing to Sykes. It’s why, from the day he stepped onto campus, he’s put up extra shots, put up the weights, and is now attacking each day with a different vigor.
"I only know one way," he said. "I was just ranked 40 (out of high school) trying to be one of the better players, so I only know one way, and that’s just to work hard."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.