What the Panthers lack without #21

This much we knows is true: despite beginning the season 2-0, no one in the Milwaukee Panthers fan base has been pleased with how the two games have gone.

Southwest Minnesota State was playing the game at the end like they had a chance to win, because they did.  Northern Illinois almost clanked in a game-winner at the buzzer.  This is a team that lost first-team All-Conference player Anthony Hill and volume shooter Tone Boyle.  But what else is the team missing?

Tony Meier's absence has been notable. But what is it that makes him so important?

Tony Meier.  And everyone knows it.  But why is it that Tony Meier’s absence has the rest of the team in such a funk?

The fact of the matter is that without Tony Meier, the Panthers don’t have a lot of room with which to work.

Milwaukee’s offense is predicated very much on spacing.  Tony Meier’s role, whether the inside presence is Anthony Hill or James Haarsma and the point guard is Ricky Franklin or Kaylon Williams, is to provide spacing.  Yes, he’s there to score points. Yes, he’s there to draw fouls and take advantage of his great free-throw shooting.  But what makes Meier so effective, and the Panthers as a team, is the spacing they can achieve.

Spacing is all about spreading out a defense.  In the first couple games without Tony Meier, the Panthers have lost much of their ability to get spacing.  Take the starting lineup from tonight’s Northern Illinois game for example.  Ryan Allen and Ja’Rob McCallum start as the 2 and 3 on the wing, Kaylon Williams runs the point, and James Haarsma is the 5.  Without Tony Meier in the game, it is up to Kyle Kelm to run the 4 spot, with help from Ryan Haggerty and Demetrius Harris, depending on the personnel on the court.

Ja'Rob McCallum's newfound strength will help him drive the lane. But what if there's no lane to drive?

Kelm is a good player, and he’s going to be great down the road.  But Kelm has yet to show in college that he is a force to be reckoned with from the outside.  Because of their height, both Kelm and Meier have jump shots that are practically unblockable.  What a player like Evan Richard achieves with amazing jumping ability, they achieve just by being really tall.  Meier’s shooting, of course, has been far more consistent and effective – this is mainly because he has two years of experience on Kelm, but the fact remains that when he gets the outside shots, whether they be from two or three, he knocks them down.

This causes several things to happen.  First, and most important, Meier’s shooting ability from the outside forces the opposing defense to guard him when he’s out there.  Because they have to do that, they are not able to sag their four defender into the post and double-team the five.  In case you haven’t noticed, James Haarsma has been living with people on his back the first two games of the season.  These double teams are why.

Not only does the 5 find himself in a precarious position offensively, but that sagging 4 defender is also in place to cut off driving lanes for Milwaukee guards.  Ja’Rob McCallum’s newfound leg and arm strength led him to drive the lane at will against Parkside in exhibition, but against regular season opponents he isn’t finding the space to make that happen.  The same goes for Ryan Allen and Evan Richard.  While McCallum and Richard have the jump shots to step back and pop, Allen is still improving in that area and could be scoring more if Meier were in the lineup.

Speaking of McCallum and Richard stepping back and taking outside shots, the lack of an effective outside shooter at the four means that there are more outside shots.  I realize that sounds confusing, but having a post player who can also shoot well from the outside forces the defense to commit help out to him, which in turn opens up the driving lanes and closer shots.

There is one simple truth about basketball.  The closer you get to the rim, the higher shooting percentage you make.  So while it’s good to have Meier outside shooting threes, it’s better to have Anthony Hill inside pounding the glass.  Eight times out of ten you’re going to end up with the inside player scoring more.

Anthony Hill was very effective in the post, but how would he have done if he had the constant double-team that James Haarsma is facing this season?

This is the foundation of Milwaukee’s championship team.  For the first time in Jeter’s tenure, the Panthers not only found themselves above the cellar in shooting, but in the top half of the conference.  This came largely from Anthony Hill’s high shooting percentage, which existed because Anthony Hill spent his senior year camped out underneath the basket.

Without Meier on the court, Haarsma is getting double-teamed, finding the offensive glass much more crowded, and the team as a whole is finding their driving lanes cut off far more often than they would if Meier were on the court.

Meier is a decent post player, but his outside shooting makes him a many-headed monster and a scary player to guard.  That makes it impossible for opponents to leave him open on the perimeter, because if they do he makes them pay.  And by bringing the defenders out to meet him, the Panthers find much more open lanes in which to drive.

To me, the answer is simple.  The team can either wait for Meier to heal, weather the stormy November and hope he comes back in December ready to go immediately, or they can find that #4 who can score on both the inside and outside.

Kyle Kelm is that guy.  He has a good outside shooting stroke, but he needs it to be more consistent if he’s going to help the team fix its major spacing issue.  This is why the SMSU game was so troubling; Kelm seemed more comfortable on the outside, yet he was almost forcing himself to play that four spot underneath as a prototypical power forward.

Kelm bulked up this offseason, this much is obvious.  His arms and legs are noticeably stronger, but that doesn’t mean he needs to camp out on the block like Ant Hill did.  On the contrary, it should only mean that when he is down low, he can use that extra strength to power through defenders.  It doesn’t mean he needs to spend any more time on the block.  If you are a perimeter-shooting power forward, by all means continue to be that player.  I don’t think anyone is arguing Steve Novak should have played more down low at Marquette.

Find the player who can draw opponents to the outside at the four position, and the Panthers will find the key they need to open up the offensive locked door.

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Eye on the numbers

One thing I want is for PantherU to be different from the other news sources Milwaukee fans have used.  There’s more to a basketball game than the box score; while you can garner a lot of useful information from the box score, there is a lot more to see if you just look further in.

For instance, we can see that the Panthers had a pretty awful game from the line, going 13-for-25 and shooting just 52%.  But the fact that the Panthers got to the line 25 times was a very good thing, and was a big reason they won.  This number, when you divide it by the amount of field goal shots taken in the game, is known as your free throw rate.  It’s the percentage of free throw shots taken over all field goals, and it was a much higher clip for Milwaukee than it was for Northern Illinois.

The Huskies’ free throw shooting rate was just 33.3%, and they lost the game.  This doesn’t mean it is a major part of the game, but what it tells us is that Milwaukee was doing a much better job of making its shot attempts count; that is, not only were the Panthers taking shots from the field, but they were getting fouled on more of the shot attempts.

This number is a bit out of whack, as the Huskies did foul the Panthers significantly towards the end of the game.  But the truth was that Milwaukee shot a significant amount of free throws, and most of the game that came from drawing unintentional fouls.

It is one of the Four Factors and is a big part of why teams win ball games.  To read more about the Four Factors of basketball, read here.

Black and Gold escape with victory

Antoine Christian threw up a heave to try and steal a victory, but it caromed off the glass, leaving the Milwaukee Panthers with a sweaty 59-57 victory on Monday night in DeKalb, Illinois over the Northern Illinois Huskies.

James Haarsma was the MVP of the night for the Panthers, taking several charges from the Huskies while dropping in 15 points and securing 12 rebounds.  Haarsma’s 5-for-7 shooting clip on the night was also the best on the team, as only one other player shot better than 44% (Ryan Haggerty, 1-1 3PT).

Ryan Allen and Kaylon Williams did well on perimeter defense.

Milwaukee opened up a twelve-point lead at half-time, but the all-too-usual scoring drought hit the Panthers hard to begin the second half.  Northern Illinois used some crafty shooting in the second stanza to take the lead with 10:46 remaining in the game.  The Panthers quickly regained the lead on a Kyle Kelm three-point shot, putting the black and gold up for good despite never growing the lead past six the rest of the way.

Four Panthers finished in double figures on the night.  Ja’Rob McCallum started hot, scoring twelve points by the five minute mark of the first half.  He cooled down considerably and did not make another shot the rest of the game, and did not attempt a single free throw.  Kyle Kelm had a big second half on the way to a ten-point outing, spending more of his time in his comfort zone of mixing perimeter shooting with mid-range attacks.  The Panthers also got ten from senior guard Ryan Allen, who made his living under the basket, pulling down six rebounds and taking ten foul shots on the night.

Milwaukee showed an extremely stout perimeter defense when Kaylon Williams, Ryan Allen and Paris Gulley were on the floor.  Tim Toler was the only Husky in double-figures, scoring 11 on the night.

The Panthers had a chance to guarantee at least overtime in the waning seconds, but Paris Gulley missed the second of two free throw attempts and Christian’s shot would have been the game-winner.

Milwaukee returns to action Friday at the Arena as they take on the IUPUI Jaguars at 7 p.m.  The Jaguars are in action Tuesday night at 7 p.m. against UALR, who Milwaukee also plays this season.

Preview opponents

Milwaukee fans may be interested to know that their opponents on Friday, the IUPUI Jaguars, will be playing their first game in the Auto-Owners Insurance Spartan Classic against the UALR Trojans, a team the Panthers play on November 26th.

Panther fans will be able to access the game on WNDE.com and iHeartRadio.  Tip time is 7:05 p.m. central and will be a good preview for the Panthers.

A link to the online feed is here.