Keifer Sykes just wishes he would have palmed the ball. Eight times out of 10, he thinks he would have finished the play.
No mid-major guard in the country has produced more jaw-dropping highlights over the last 11 months than Sykes, Green Bay's 5'11 senior floor general. He's wowed Chris Paul by throwing himself a windmill alley-oop at the NBA star's summer camp and made SportsCenter by hammering home a lob at UIC. But when Sykes reflects on his most electric moments, a dunk he didn't make is the one he can't get out of his head.
One week before the Wisconsin Badgers headed off to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis, Bo Ryan's team hosted Green Bay at the Kohl Center on a cold Wisconsin night in November. It was a rare opportunity for Sykes and the Phoenix to show what they could do against a program ranked in the top five of the polls and fresh off a trip to the Final Four.
A minute and a half into the game, Sykes exploded past Traevon Jackson to the middle of the paint. He only had one thing on his mind. Sykes considers Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky a friend, but on this night the All-American big man might as well have had a target on his chest instead of No. 44.
"Once I got body contact with him, I lost it," Sykes said. "That probably would have changed everything."
Green Bay eventually lost by 24, but the ensuing Twitter back-and-forth between Kaminsky and Sykes was an uplifting moment appreciated around the world of college basketball. For Sykes, it was another example of a career forged on a refusal to let bigger obstacles deter his path.
Keifer Sykes is on the map now, but it wasn't always that way. A 5'11 guard who entered Green Bay unranked by every major scouting service isn't supposed to be one of 15 players in the country invited to Paul's summer camp for elite guards. He wasn't supposed to show up on every preseason top 100 list or start appearing on 2015 mock drafts.
It feels like this should all be so overwhelming, but those who know Sykes aren't so surprised. From his time at Marshall High School on Chicago's west side to his AAU days coming off the bench for a team loaded with high major talent, Sykes has developed a reputation as a player who won't be denied, no matter what's in front of him.
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(Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)
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Sykes is the youngest of nine children in a family raised on the southeast side of Chicago. When he came to Marshall, where his older brother played football, coach Henry Cotton had no idea who he was. It didn't take long for him to find out.
Both the coach and the player recall the same moment as Sykes' breakthrough. It was the first time he was called up to varsity as sophomore in Dec. 2008 against one of the state's wealthiest north suburban high schools, New Trier.
"I'll never forget, the varsity was in a Christmas tournament, and he called me and he told me you're going to play up," Sykes said. "I just remember hanging up the phone and being like, 'This is the best Christmas present I got.' I didn't even know how to tell my family or tell anyone."
That 13-point performance was the launching point for a dynamic career in the vaunted Chicago Public League. By the time he was a junior, Sykes had made a name for himself in the city by leading Marshall to 28 wins and a spot in the the final four of the state playoffs. He did enough to get a roster spot on the city's premier AAU team, the Mac Irvin Fire, heading into his senior season.
At this point, it's easy to tell just how stacked the Fire's roster was in 2010. A sophomore forward from Simeon named Jabari Parker led the way, fresh off his second state title. Sam Thompson (Ohio State) and Wayne Blackshear (Louisville) were on the wing, too. The Fire also had Mycheal Henry, Tommy Hamilton IV and Jamee Crockett, a trio that now all starts for a resurgent DePaul team.
Sykes was lost in the shuffle and relegated to the bench. Yet rather than pout, he saw the positive in being around so much talent. It was a transformative experience that he now believes helped shape his career.
"It was the biggest learning experience I've had as far as basketball," Sykes said. "You know when you're around high caliber players. I had to sit back and really learn the game that summer around elite players. It made me want to become one of those elite players."
It was a summer that fueled Sykes through his senior year and onto Green Bay, where he became an unlikely revelation as a freshman. Sykes finished second on the team in scoring at 11.2 points per game and led the team in assists. The Phoenix were making progress under second-year coach Brian Wardle, but they only finished 15-15.
Sykes didn't know it at the time, but it was the last year his father would watch him play basketball. James Sykes would die suddenly of a heart attack just as Keifer was getting ready for his sophomore season.
"He has a very strong family," Cotton said. "They are a really tight family. Every time you looked up his dad was at every game at Marshall. Away games, home games. It was a big loss for him. I think the Green Bay family is the one that really had to step back and be there for him."
While the rest of the team was entrenched in offseason training, Sykes went back to Chicago to be with his family. Wardle came, too, comforting his point guard in his home city in the days leading up the funeral. It was a devastating blow to the foundation of a sprawling family, but in the sorrow Sykes found a new rock to lean on.
"I remember at the funeral, the whole team walking into the funeral home," Sykes said. "It was crazy the respect coach had for me and my family, for him to bring the whole team in the summer time to be there with me."
Green Bay did all it could to make Sykes feel at home, which included bringing on his former high school teammates Alfonzo McKinnie and Vincent Garrett as transfers. Green Bay climbed over .500 that next season as Sykes averaged nearly 16 per game. It all set the stage for a wildly successful junior year when Sykes became one of the most proficient scoring guards in the country, as well as the Horizon League Player of the Year.
Sykes averaged over 20 points per game and finished with an impressive true shooting percentage of 57.3. Green Bay went 24-7 and beat Virginia, a team that would head to the NCAA Tournament with a No. 1 attached to its name.
That season would eventually end in heartbreak as the Phoenix lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament to Milwaukee in overtime. Their regular season championship in the Horizon League wasn't enough for an at-large bid to the big dance, which has made the goal for this season easy enough: find a way to get there.
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(Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)
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The Horizon League is rarely a two-bid conference, but you can't fault Green Bay for trying. Entering the weekend, the Phoenix have the No. 1 RPI in the country, one spot ahead of Kentucky and two spots ahead of Duke.
Green Bay was pasted by Wisconsin and blown out by a loaded Georgia State team, but the season took a major turn in the right direction last Saturday. With Miami ranked No. 15 in the country, the Phoenix went into Coral Gables and held the Hurricanes to 32.8 percent shooting. Sykes scored 18, junior guard Carrington Love added 20 points and Green Bay notched its first win over a ranked opponent since 2009.
You could hear a pin drop in the arena in the final minutes when it became apparent a mid-major was upsetting a ranked ACC power. The occasion should have have warranted a big time celebration, but Green Bay took pride in acting like it had been there before.
"The best part about it was we expected to win that game," Sykes said. "We didn't have a crazy reaction to that win. We just shook hands with (Miami) and kept our celebration to the locker room."
There's still a long way to go for the Phoenix. On the calendar of basketball, December is a beginning, not an end. The early season RPI is nice, but Green Bay will still almost certainly have to win its conference tournament to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996.
In that sense, there's still plenty ahead for Keifer Sykes, both at Green Bay and beyond. After everything it took to get him this far, he isn't ready to see it end just yet.