The Spring of 2016 will be remembered as either a time full of dispute, debate and controversy, or when building blocks were put in place to construct a future contender in the UW-Milwaukee’s men’s basketball program.
“As a team we are getting to know one another and for myself, interacting with the coaches,” said returning guard Brock Stull.
With their four leading scorers leaving the program through either graduation or transfer, and with a new head coach, the team is forced to learn and mature quickly.
Stull states that there isn’t too much of a difference between the current and past head coaches, but describes Jordan as “a little more intense”.
LaVall Jordan was introduced as the new head basketball coach at UW-Milwaukee following the firing of Rob Jeter after 11 seasons with the program. Coach Jordan spent the last six years as an assistant coach at the University of Michigan, where the Wolverines made it to five NCAA tournaments, including a Final Four appearance in 2013.
Last season the Panthers finished with a respectable 20-13 regular season record, but went only 10-8 in conference games and were forced to settle for a third straight fifth place finish. Athletic Director Amanda Braun has set high expectations for the program ever since becoming the school’s athletic director in 2013, stating their goals are third place and above with NCAA tournament aspirations.
While the team earned a spot in the dance just two years ago, it was only the fourth time this century, and they haven’t won the Horizon League Conference since 2006, while placing no higher than fourth since 2010.
Matt Tiby, a 6’ 8” forward, who led the team last season in both points (15.6) and rebounds (8.2), is lost to graduation, as well as 6’ 10” J.J. Panoske. Akeem Spring, the team’s second leading scorer, transferred to Minnesota and Austin Arians was lost to Wake Forest not three days apart from one another in the wake of the firing. And to make coach Jordan’s rebuilding process even more difficult, Jordan Johnson, the owner of UWM’s single-season and single-game assist records, relocated to be reunited with coach Jeter at UNLV.
However, coach Jordan put his recruiting talents to work immediately by signing guards Cameron Harvey, Zac Saddler and Jeremiah Bell in May.
“It was a great situation for me, I felt this was a perfect spot,” said Bell, who has three years of eligibility after transferring from Vincennes University. “I fell in love right from my visit. Coach Omar called me and said ‘we want you.’” Assistant coach Omar Lowery was hired by Jordan last April out of Sam Houston State University.
Bell is set to replace Johnson as the team’s starting point guard. He helped guide the Rebels to a 26-8 record last season, while averaging 14.3 points and 4.2 assists per game. Johnson was the primary reason Milwaukee led the league in assists and Jerimiah plans on keeping it that way.
“I had to work on my all-around game, ball handling and shooting. I feel I can make my team around me better; being able to to create shots for my teammates. Push in transition, score in transition.”
With only two seniors, one junior, and two redshirt juniors, this team thrives on youth, with fresh recruits being: guard Bryce Barnes, a four-year recruit from Chicago, forward Zac Saddler, who left his high school in Texas as the all time leader in blocks and rebounds, forward Bryce Nze, a two-time all-conference pick from Hartland, WI, and guard August Haas from Copenhagen, Denmark.
The Panthers will be lacking in size, scoring and experience this season, with returning guard Cody Wichmann being their leading returning scorer with an average of 4.8 point per game. Jordan addressed in his introduction last spring the need for a high-tempo offense that can score fast with efficiency. They ranked fourth in scoring offense last season, averaging 79.3 points per game, and placed third in field goal percentage (45.6%), while finishing first in assists, three-pointers, and free throw percentage, but only sixth in offensive rebounds.
Defensively, they may have been fourth in rebounds, but being eighth in blocks and dead last in steals was a primary reason why, despite finishing seven games above .500, the opposition scored more field goals, (882 to 879). And with their two big men having graduated, puts extra pressure on the team to be more guard-oriented.
However, Rome wasn’t built in a year, and the Panthers, while lacking in some categories, have plenty of talent and youth to help rebuild a program that had once won three straight conference titles from 2004-2006, and has the most championships of any current member in the league.
“I feel comfortable with the guys,” said Bell. “I’m home.”