Defense quickly becoming Milwaukee’s identity

Bo Ryan runs the swing.  Bruce Pearl’s team presses the hell out of you.  John Calipari runs an NBA roster and somehow remains under the salary cap.

Yet until this season, Rob Jeter’s Milwaukee Panthers have struggled to really find an identity.

Ryan Allen and Kaylon Williams defended well last year on the perimeter. Having Paris Gulley to help in 2011-12 has brought great results.

This has always been a team that rebounds well, but that’s not an identity.  Perhaps the poor free throw shooting has been the Panthers’ identity, but I don’t think anyone wants to own up to that one.  So what kind of team are we?  We don’t run the swing, more of a swing/dribble drive hybrid that looks great in Kaylon Williams’ hands and no one else’s.

Looking over the box scores of the season and watching the team play has led me to a conclusion, that this year the Panthers actually have found an identity.

Defense.

Man-up, smack you around, in your face defense.  This is the kind of identity that I’ve longed for, and the 6-1 start is due to this newfound interest in defense.

With Kaylon Williams, Ryan Allen, and Paris Gulley on the court, there is no team in the country that Milwaukee cannot defend.  These three are the kind of lock down defenders that coaches drool over; Ryan Allen spent much of last season playing minutes despite so-so offense because he was a dynamite defender; it looks like Paris Gulley is going to be the same player this season, as he played 18 minutes tonight despite having a poor offensive night.

Over the offseason, Ryan Allen worked on his offensive game to the point where not only is he no longer a liability on the offensive end, but he’s a boon for the team’s scoring chances.  How does this help Milwaukee’s defense? Well, to put it simply, Allen is on the court a whole lot more.  Ja’Rob McCallum spent the summer doing the opposite, and bulked up and built enough lateral quickness to no longer be a tremendous liability on the defensive end.  While McCallum and freshman Evan Richard are not on the level of the other three guards, they are not bad defenders and get better with more game experience.

Ryan Allen has become one of the premier defenders in the Horizon League along with CSU's D'Aundray Brown and Butler's Ronald Nored.

The Panthers showed the speed and toughness to run with Michigan State for 38 minutes last week, getting back in transition D and limiting second-chance opportunities by racking up defensive rebounds.

In the post, Kyle Kelm and James Haarsma had trouble with help defense and defending layups against Southwest Minnesota State; they have not had that trouble since, and while Haarsma has been consistently great on defense, Kelm has only gotten better and better every game.

Off the bench, Ryan Haggerty is one of the best post defenders in the conference.  While he doesn’t have much of an offensive game in comparison to Kelm, Haarsma and Tony Meier, Haggerty more than measures up by having a strong nose for the ball, playing exceptional help defense, blocking shots like a machine, and playing with a high motor.

Ryan Haggerty may not play 25 minutes a game, but he is an exceptional post defender.

We can trace this newfound love of defense back to the Northern Illinois game.  With Williams in the lineup for the first time, the Panthers won the game by forcing the Huskies to shoot only 37% and give up 23 turnovers.  Since then, the only team to sniff 60 points on Milwaukee was Michigan State, whose nine point run to begin the second half left 61 points the rest of the game.

The Panthers’ opponent field goal percentage (37.1) ranks number one in the Horizon League.  Milwaukee also leads in opponent efficient field goal percentage (40.1%) and, most importantly, is only giving up 53.1 points per game, first in the Horizon League and eighth nationally.

Here is a short table showing defensive numbers and how Milwaukee stacks up nationally:

Opponent Statistics Numbers Conference rank National rank
Points per game 53.1 1 8
Field Goal% 37.1 1 28
Effective Field Goal% 40.1 1 14
3PT Field Goal% 22.8 2 6
Steals per game 5.7 2 77

So, as you can see, the Panthers have found their identity – lock down defense.  It has become something the Panthers have done very well all season, and the team’s record shows that this is the difference-maker that coach Rob Jeter has looked for over his head coaching career.

With new emphasis on defense, Milwaukee is finally moving up into the echelon where their fans can expect tough defense and a shot to win every game.

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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