Green Bay’s Sundance Wicks is authoring one of college basketball’s best stories – The Athletic

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Sundance Wicks opens two wooden panels on the wall inside his office to reveal a whiteboard with various words and numbers written in marker.

In the top-left corner is “16.” Wicks wrote it shortly after being hired as Green Bay’s head coach last March.

The number carried two meanings. One, the program won 16 games in the prior three seasons combined — 8-17 in 2020-21, 5-25 the next year and 3-29 last season. That tied for the worst record in Division I and set the mark for the worst season in the program’s 42-year history. Two, Wicks aimed to win 16 games in his first year.

After a couple of summer practices, some inside the Kress Center nudged Wicks to erase the 16 and replace it with a number more realistic, perhaps an eight or 10. Even Wicks thought at the time that 16 wins would classify as a miracle season.

“Once I manifest it,” Wicks says now, “I don’t move it.”

Less than a year later, the overhaul is nothing short of remarkable.

Green Bay is 17-10 overall and 12-4 in the Horizon League, a half-game back of first-place Oakland in the 11-team conference after being picked by coaches and media in the preseason to finish last. Towson holds the D1 men’s record for biggest improvement from one season to the next (17.5 games) after going 1-31 in the 2011-12 season and 18-13 the next. Currently at a 16.5-game improvement with four regular-season games and the postseason remaining, the Phoenix are well within reach of the record.

This may be America’s most iconic football city, but it’s an eccentric college basketball coach and his team in Green Bay authoring one of the sport’s most impressive stories this season.

Wicks, the 43-year-old who goes by Sunny, grew up in Gillette, Wyo., imitating comedian and actor Jim Carrey. Spend time with him, and that checks out. He’s a quote machine who makes you think 5-hour Energy created a 43-year Energy and gave it to this guy.

He described himself as “goofy” and “out there” as a kid, which he figures made sense since his parents named his brother Luke, his sister Kelsey and him …Sundance. His dad, Mark, a spiritual nomad with a bald head and small ponytail, encouraged Sundance to be himself even if he was different.

Wicks played at Campbell County High School for Mike Curry, the winningest coach in Wyoming basketball history. He also played at Division II Northern State in South Dakota for Don Meyer, who ranks ninth in college basketball history with 923 wins. Wicks witnessed how two legends fostered culture and built sustainable programs.

He carried those lessons to his first coaching job as a graduate assistant under Meyer before stints as an assistant at Colorado, Northern Illinois, San Francisco and Northern State and as a skills trainer in Arizona before becoming the head coach at Division II Missouri Western. When then-Missouri Western athletic director Josh Looney hired Wicks, he said, “You’re an enemy of the status quo. We want you to be you. We don’t want you to be like the other coaches.” In the two seasons before Wicks took over, the Griffons went 7-21 and 6-21. In their first two years under Wicks, they went 12-18 and 18-14, the first sign that his style could help turn a program around.

Wicks said he ruled with an iron fist early on, perhaps contrary to how his dad raised him to be competitive yet kind — “The Sunny Way,” Pops called it. That method translated to success on the court, yet it didn’t sit right with a coach who prided himself on bringing his own juice — a “BYOJ” sign hangs above Wicks’ office door today — but who didn’t want that juice to be destructive.

“You don’t have to be a raging a— to be respected,” Wicks says. “A lot of coaches think they just gotta be straight-up jerks.”

Wicks left Missouri Western to become an assistant at Wyoming, coaching for three seasons under Jeff Linder. Green Bay last year fired Will Ryan, the son of former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. Josh Moon, Green Bay’s athletic director, was the AD at Northern State when Wicks was an assistant there during a national runner-up season in 2018. Linder urged Moon to hire Wicks, whom he called “the juice man.”

“I go, ‘That’s what you need there right now. You need a guy who’s not scared. You need a guy that’s gonna bring energy to the program,’” Linder recalls telling Moon. “In this day in age of college basketball with the landscape of the transfer portal, NIL, a job like Green Bay, it goes from being a really hard job into being almost an impossible job, and so you have to have somebody who doesn’t see impossible, but sees possible.”

Moon became Green Bay’s AD in July 2021; the next two Phoenix men’s basketball teams went a combined 8-54. He said watching the team felt like being on a treadmill that never stopped — no progress was made. He needed to restore the tradition of a program that once made three NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons in the 1990s under Dick Bennett.

“People lost touch,” Moon says. “They lost belief. They lost faith. Alumni weren’t involved, so every single area of the program was falling short. It was tough walking into that facility knowing that there were only maybe 500 or less fans at a game. It’s almost like, is the tradition real here?”

Why would Wicks want such a daunting job?

For one, he believed the program’s history proved winning was possible. He reunited with a familiar boss, too, one who sold Wicks on Green Bay because Moon told him it would remind him of Northern State in that fans would gravitate toward a coach who was positive and involved in the community.

“We need somebody who can flip the narrative overnight and say this program does matter,” Moon recalls thinking. “Anybody who’s met Sunny is gonna believe after that conversation, so we need somebody that could bring the Ted Lasso belief piece in.”

Wicks could probably sell you a pile of trash. One might wonder whether his exuberance and movie references are a shtick — he mentions “Billy Madison,” “The Greatest Showman,” “Batman” and “Jerry Maguire” in one interview about turning the program around.

That’s who he is, though, and this version of The Sunny Way works.

“He’s the real deal,” redshirt sophomore guard Preston Ruedinger says. “He’s hard on us in practice, but then off the court, it’s your buddy. We have so much respect for him and what he does and how he goes about his business and that he’s just literally an everyday guy. You can’t have anything but ultimate respect for him.”

Wicks gave his roster a facelift in 61 days this spring, bringing in 12 new players in hopes of ridding the program of last year’s stench. Inside Wicks’ notebook are two pages on which he devoted a line to each of those days.

There are notes for each one, starting with when he was hired. For example, Day 10’s note was that former Phoenix big man Cade Meyer, whom Wicks wanted to retain, entered the transfer portal (he now plays for Northern Kentucky). Days 13 and 14 read “family time” and “be present.” There were only four such days of the 61 for Wicks to focus on his wife, Courteney, daughter, Grace and son, Skywalker. Other lines detail which recruits visited campus on a given day or when he had a press conference.

Wicks calls himself the “IRS of basketball” because of the internal audit he conducted upon taking the job. This was the detail required, not only in a notebook, to rescue Green Bay from college basketball’s gutter. For each of the 15 players, he evaluated three factors: ability on the court, accountability off it and academic performance.

“If you’re 0-3,” Wicks said, “you’re not for me.”

He first weighed things like parking ticket history and grades before deciding whether to put players through what he called a one-month tryout on the hardwood to remain on the team. Some players, he said, wanted to stay but didn’t want to go through the tryout.

“You had your chance,” Wicks told them. “Anybody who was a part of a 3-29 season and the worst season in the program history is up for review … to me, that’s real world. That’s how it works. You don’t just get free passes here.”

Only three players stayed — forward Clarence Cummings III, who led the team in minutes per game and tied for the lead in points per game, guard Ryan Wade, a walk-on who averaged three points and 16 minutes per game and forward Amari Jedkins, who redshirted last season.

Wicks’ approach in filling out the other spots on his roster was to aim small, miss small. He targeted perhaps lesser-talented players with model character instead of more talented players who might’ve carried off-court concerns.

“I don’t do well in environments where you got talented losers,” he says.

Wicks began every recruiting pitch outlining that Green Bay ranked No. 361 out of 363 on KenPom in 2022-23. Because the team ranked below the Phoenix —  Hartford — dropped out of Division I, Green Bay ranked ahead of only LIU among returning teams this season.

He wanted players who would buy what he was selling when the program was at its lowest.

“We dropped every bomb,” Wicks said. “Usually other schools have to negative recruit you. No, we negative recruited ourselves. We told you how hard it was gonna be … how much doubt and negativity are gonna be surrounding the program. And so when you end up getting these guys to commit, you just get the resilience before you ever get the reward. Because you just said yes to a flaming pile of crap from ‘Billy Madison.’”

Green Bay features 11 players who average double-digit minutes, but none is more important than Noah Reynolds.

The 6-foot-3 junior guard averaged 14.1 points per game for Wyoming last season and committed to Wisconsin as a transfer in April. Two weeks later, he de-committed and says now he didn’t only want to be an insurance policy; he sought a team that needed him instead of simply wanting him.

At Green Bay, he would be the star. Wicks recruited Reynolds out of high school and coached him for his two seasons at Wyoming. Wicks also hired Nic Reynolds, Noah’s older brother and a Southern Arkansas assistant last season, for his staff. Wicks says he didn’t hire Nic simply to lure Noah, that older brother actually helped guide younger brother to Wisconsin initially.

“There’s just not a lot of pit bulls out there,” Linder says of Reynolds. “He’s definitely a pit bull … He has the ability for the offense to run through him, and given that responsibility, he’s made the most of it.”

Reynolds said that Miami and San Diego State, both coming off the 2023 Final Four, showed interest when he backed out of his Badgers commitment. He revealed his decision to Wicks at popular Green Bay brunch spot, The Creamery Downtown. Wicks says he cried, and not because the tostada he ate was too spicy.

“When you actually reel in the big fish and you get a guy, it brings you to tears,” Wicks says. “It could’ve been the jalapeños or the onions, but that’s who I am, though. I get moved very easily, like internally. I got a lot of emotion. I got a lot of passion and I get moved by people who believe.”

Reynolds — who averages a team-high 19.7 points and 4.4 assists per game — headlines Wicks’ new-look team. Behind him are the guys Wicks calls “The Crazy Eights,” who can each play second-in-command.

“We have a roster full of those guys who can be that Robin to Noah’s Batman every single night,” Wicks said. “There’s a little magic and uncertainty every single day.”

There’s Ruedinger, a Wisconsin native who grew up attending Phoenix games with his dad and who was offended when they didn’t offer in high school. The 6-2 Ruedinger played two years at Valparaiso and now is second in assists and fifth in points for Green Bay.

There’s Foster Wonders, the soft-spoken guard who spent his first two years at Southern Illinois and ranks third on the team in points and is shooting more than 40 percent on 144 3-point attempts. Wicks was giving his recruiting speech to a group of prospective recruits that included Wonders at the Green Bay Country Club last spring when he joked, “I’ll take a commitment at any time,” understanding that most kids don’t commit on location.

“I’ll never forget this,” Wicks says. “This is a quiet kid, doesn’t say much at all, and it’s like ‘Jerry Maguire.’ He slaps the table. He’s like, ‘I’m in!’ and stands up. Everybody in the room’s like, ‘What the f—-?’”

There’s junior college transfer forward Elijah Jones, who leads the team in rebounds and ranks second in points. True freshmen David Douglas Jr. and forward Marcus Hall play important roles, and so too do veteran forwards Rich Byhre, a Division II transfer, and the holdover Cummings.

On the court, the lead dog in Reynolds and a rag-tag group behind him have clicked. Off it, too, as Cummings said that players hang out in the facility after practice. That might seem mundane, but he said that’s a change from last season, when you couldn’t blame them for wanting to go home as soon as possible.

Alongside an equation on his office white board that reads, “faith + patience = don’t panic,” Wicks wrote, “5 ways to win.”

The first one, “talent,” has a line through it because Wicks knew a school like his couldn’t win simply by accumulating the best talent. Under that are “effort,” “different thinking,” “process” and “hire right.”

Wicks wanted assistants who grinded at lower levels, so he hired Pat Monaghan from Southern Illinois and a pair of D2 assistants in Zach Malvik (Winona State) and Nic Reynolds.

Wicks even brought in two videographers from Red Maya Films to document the rebuild, with one producing videos every game and one crafting a season-long docuseries.

“I want the cameras on, and I want ’em to be comfortable with it,” Wicks says. “Sometimes people shy away from it and they don’t wanna show what the real guts of the program are because they’re scared of what they will look like. I’ve never had that problem.”

Wicks is a devout user of X (formerly Twitter), too, since he values tracking the pulse of the media and fan base and re-posting items to advocate for his players and team. In that regard, he compares himself to Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum character in “The Greatest Showman.”

“I’m the guy that tries to get people to come to the circus,” Wicks says. “I’m the ringleader. I’m the ringmaster.”

It’s not the most conventional way to build a program, not just the head coach’s social media strategy but everything he entails. When that program was arguably the country’s worst, however, conventional won’t revive much. So far, it’s been a smashing success; as of Sunday, Green Bay ranked 187th at KenPom, a leap of 174 spots from a year ago.

He has taken a team from the country’s cellar to the precipice of a regular-season conference title. The program’s second NCAA Tournament berth in 28 years is no longer a pipe dream. If this is what he’s done with a program left for dead in less than a year, there’s no telling what Sundance Wicks might accomplish next.

Source: Green Bay’s Sundance Wicks is authoring one of college basketball’s best stories – The Athletic

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