No avoiding the void

For the better part of three months, I’ve had a lot of trouble trying to put a finger on the troubles of the Milwaukee Panthers in the 2012-14 season.

“That’s been the story for us. We haven’t had those guys who can consistently perform, and then those guys who can give you nine or ten a game.” Head coach Rob Jeter was not wrong; the Milwaukee Panthers have always had a couple players who have stepped into leading roles. This year, it hasn’t happened.

What did Milwaukee lose with the graduation of Kaylon Williams, Ryan Allen and Tony Meier? Simply put, a ton. Williams broke the school D-I assists record; Allen broke the single-season blocks record, and his defensive prowess led Milwaukee to be the toughest team in the country against three-point shooting last season. Tony Meier scored 1,000 points as a Panther. And they were key cogs in the 2010-11 championship season that was based on the prowess of Anthony Hill and Tone Boyle.

Every year since Rob Jeter took over for Bruce Pearl, the leaders he recruited have gotten better every year. In 06-07, the Nick Hansen/Allan Hanson tandem were replaced by Paige Paulsen and Marcus Skinner. Then it was Ricky Franklin and Avery Smith. What happened?

Part of it is attrition. Perhaps it was time for Ja’Rob McCallum and Lonnie Boga to step up and take their roles as leaders. At the very least, having Ja’Rob and the Boga brothers in the program would have given Jeter a lot more flexibility in the 1, 2 and 3 spots. All due respect to Mitch Roelke, but he has severe limitations on his game that would preclude him from playing any important minutes on a contending team.

Another truth is that the players brought in couldn’t do enough to stem the flow of problems. A couple of big losses in recruiting led to Milwaukee being dangerously thin at guard. Trivante Bloodman and Brandon Spearman committed to Mississippi State and Hawai’i, respectively. While neither are tearing the roof off the arena, both would be welcome options for Jeter as he tries to juggle a severely hobbled guard lineup. Jordan Aaron, Paris Gulley and Evan Richard are Milwaukee’s only healthy guards right now. Bobo Niang hasn’t been healthy since five games into the season, and even Roelke is now tending to a sprained ankle.

A few players have seen their play regress with the move from Kaylon Williams to Jordan Aaron as floor general. Consider the fact that James Haarsma has fallen off considerably. He’s dropped four points per game, 16% from the field, 27% from beyond the arc and nearly a full rebound per game. Kyle Kelm’s summer weight loss has severely limited his ability to be a power-player in the post, and he’s dropped six percent in shooting from the field and three-point land in addition to pulling down one less rebound and scoring two less points per game.

Over time, those add up. The most baffling is the night and day change in Paris Gulley. As JUCO guards at Southeastern CC, Gulley’s production increased a ton when Jay O took over halfway through Gulley’s sophomore year. Fast forward to this season, and Paris has become far less of a three-point threat as he was before. His shooting inside the arc has gotten far better, but improvement there is at the cost of losing his outside shooting capability – for a team that relies heavily on the three, losing his chops there has hurt Milwaukee considerably.

Defensively, Paris Gulley is the only guard that is not a liability on defense. Last year the tandem of Gulley, Williams and Ryan Allen was one of the best in the nation at defending the three. This season? It’s fallen off considerably.

For years, Rob Jeter’s Milwaukee team has gotten better annually from more production out of its leaders. In 2012-13, the Panthers have taken a huge step back. With the 2013 class of Steve McWhorter, Brett and Alex Prahl, Cody Wichmann and Trinson White, those Panthers have to combine with holdovers from this season to improve the record more in one year than it ever has done before if they plan to win a conference title or even sniff the NCAA Tournament.

Without Allen, there’s a void in defense. With Williams, there’s a void in leadership in an offense. With Meier, there’s a void in shooting percentages.

This year, Milwaukee couldn’t avoid the void. We’ll see if they can plug the holes.

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