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.

Black and Gold gets it right in second stanza

After going in at halftime with only a four-point lead against a team picked to be one of the dregs of the Horizon League, the Milwaukee Panthers came out of the break firing to blow out the Loyola Ramblers, 59-41 in front of 3,517 fans at the U.S. Cellular Arena.

Ryan Allen had a major alley-oop, but more importantly played mistake free for 28 minutes

Milwaukee’s first-half problems had a lot to do with how they shot the ball; there were quite a bit of missed shots that allowed the Ramblers to keep it close, and the Panthers led 22-18 at halftime.

Perhaps a big reason the Panthers shot poorly was that they missed Ja’Rob McCallum in the lineup.  McCallum, who had an injured wrist in the offseason, had the injury flare up on him and the team held him out as a precaution so as not to aggravate it further.  The Panthers really missed McCallum’s high offensive rating (103.5) when they were forced to start Paris Gulley in his place.

Gulley, who started the SMSU game at point guard to start the season, started in the shooting guard slot and did not win anybody over with his play on offense tonight.  Gulley had a rough night shooting the ball, going 0-for-5 from the field and registering only a turnover and two personal fouls in 17 minutes of play.  Gulley did play his usual airtight defense, locking down Joe Crisman, who finished with six points despite coming in averaging over ten.

Still, the shooting guard rotation seems to have cleared up a bit.  Evan Richard, who had a rough time last week, came out and did enough to warrant continued playing time.  With McCallum out, Richard played 23 minutes and scored seven points on 2-of-5 shooting with a three pointer and two free throws.  Richard also registered elsewhere, picking up three rebounds as well as an assist and a block without turning the ball over once.

Kaylon Williams was in control the whole time he was in the game.

Once the game got into the second half, the team’s shooting woes subsided and the Panthers grew a commanding lead gradually over the course of the half.  Milwaukee got solid performances from Kyle Kelm (13 pts, 6 rbs, 2 blks, 6-for-7 FG) and Kaylon Williams (12 pts, 7 rbs, 7 asts, 3 stls, only 2 TO) to really blow the game wide open.

It seemed that Williams and Kelm have really started to grow a rapport with each other and it showed tonight.  Kelm’s 6-of-7 from the floor came largely from Williams finding him down low for easy baskets.  Because Kelm has been shooting the ball better from the outside as the season has gone on, and James Haarsma has all season, the Panthers were able to stretch out the Rambler defense and get a lot of nice inside looks.  This really was where the Panthers broke the game open, scoring 34 points in the paint compared to Loyola’s 8.

The other good part about the game was the fact that the Panthers cut down on mistakes in a huge way.  Their seven turnovers were the lowest they’ve had all season and the leader, point guard Kaylon Williams, only turned the ball over twice on a couple of passes where he drove and tried to do too much with it.  Williams especially looked much better today, controlling the game in a way reminiscent of Jason Kidd.  His assist to turnover ratio for the season has been boosted to 1.6.

Remember when I wrote "There's no better feeling than faith rewarded?" Rob Jeter's team is 6-1, the best start in his career. Photo by UWM Post.

All of this said and I haven’t even gotten to Ryan Allen, the senior wing guard who led the team with 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting with five rebounds and two blocks in 28 minutes of mistake-free basketball.  Allen didn’t take the outside shots that Loyola gave him early in the game, but in a stretch in the second half he hit two long distance bombs that barely touched net, then hit both free throws he took with dead-eye accuracy.

Tony Meier returned tonight, playing 18 tough minutes as he scored three points and pulled down four rebounds while going 1-of-6 from the field.  It was Meier’s first game action since the NIT game at Northwestern in March.  Look for him to get better and help the team more as he gets over his leg injury.

The game wasn’t without its problems.  The slow first-half start was troublesome, as was the continued mediocre shooting from the free throw line (7-for-14).  Milwaukee could have really blown the game open if they had taken care of business in the first half.  In the final five minutes, coach Rob Jeter took a few players out when instead of running the clock down, they pushed the tempo to try and get some points.  After that, the Panthers’ “C” team played out the game.  Milwaukee registered two trillionaires on the night in Christian Wolf and Quinton Gustavson (that’s 1 or more minutes played with no statistical implication on the box score).

Milwaukee turns its attention to struggling UIC on Saturday to hopefully go 2-0 to start the Horizon League season and get off to an impressive 7-1 start heading into the big hitters of the non-conference schedule.

Highlights:

Press Conference:

Three reasons we’ll be thankful tomorrow #BasketballNeverStops

The hours are ticking down now, and the Milwaukee Panthers will be taking the court against the Michigan State Spartans. It’s going to be a huge barometer for the Panthers to see where they are at this point in the season.  Lose big and all the work to get to 4-0 will be for naught.  Lose close and people may be only slightly disappointed.

Win?

The talent is there to win, this is the truth.  But do I believe it’s going to happen?  Absolutely.  I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN.  And here are three reasons why:

1. No Izzone. In college basketball more than any other sport, the home court advantage matters.  All time, 72% of the victors in college basketball are the home teams, and while that comes from a number of things – familiarity, no travel lag, routine – no reason is more prominent than the student section.

The Izzone is daunting. And tonight, it will be empty.

And very few student sections in the country can call themselves as dedicated and raucous as those that occupy Michigan State’s Izzone.  Think of 2,000 Jimmy Lemke’s just bearing down on you.  As a collective, they’d drown me out without even trying.  Occupying almost a quarter of the lower bowl in the Breslin Center, the Izzone is loud, proud and not the least bit tactful about bringing up your drunk driving arrest.

Why should this be a reason that the Panthers will win?  They won’t be there.  MSU students, like every other student body in the country, practically vacate campus the day before Thanksgiving (this practice is immortalized in this film that should have run away with the Academy Award for Best Picture).  Tomorrow is no different.  On several MSU message boards, some fans are pleased they get to move down into the lower bowl.  Here’s to hoping they wish they went home for Thanksgiving early.

2. Get a little bit better every game.  I was worried, listening to the coaches and players talk early in the season, that this was all a dress rehearsal, that we were playing to peak going into March.  It worried me because I want to challenge for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament in case the Panthers have a tough game and lose in the conference tournament.  But I was listening wrong.  Yeah, our coaches want the team to peak at the end of the season.  And yes, the players haven’t been playing at that level all season.

Kelm is making astronomical strides every game. What does he have planned tonight?

But you know what?  They’re getting better.  Every game is a little bit better, a little bit stronger, a little bit quicker.  The team plays a little bit smarter, makes passes a little bit crisper, takes shots that are a little more open.  And the effect is astounding – the Panthers went from barely escaping against SMSU and NIU to shutting down future NBA player Alex Young and absolutely destroying NIT participant Texas Southern this past weekend.

I can’t wait to see what little bit gets better tonight.

3. Big players come up in big games. Whether it’s Ja’Rob McCallum against YSU to clinch the regular-season title or Kaylon Williams’ triple-double against Butler, the Panthers always seem to have someone come up big when they need it the most.  My personal favorite: Tony Meier’s performance against Cleveland State last year at the Wolstein Center was one for the ages, as he got so hot he drew Norris Cole as a defender and still scored at will.

While Meier won’t be the big time scorer, someone else is going to have to step up.  My money is on Paris Gulley, and this is why.  In the weeks leading up to the season, knowing that Kaylon Williams would be spending the first game on the bench, the coaching staff had to give Gulley a crash course in point guard play to make sure we had someone to lead the team on the court.  While we won the game despite his marginal play in the point guard position, the good news is that Williams is back – and so is Gulley.

Tonight would be a nice coming out party, Paris.

Williams at the 1 bumps Gulley to the 2, and he has now been back in his normal position for a week now.  The indication on Sunday against Texas Southern was that Gulley has found his shot; now let’s see what kind of step forward he takes on Wednesday.

The truth remains that the real three keys to victory are getting back on transition D, shutting down second-chance opportunities, and shooting effectively from both the field and the charity stripe.  But that doesn’t mean these aren’t important.

I just threw out Paris Gulley as a player who hasn’t gone gangbusters yet who should do so at some point.  His shot is there, it just needs to fall.  The possibility is that it’s James Haarsma, who could go underneath tall boys for a bunch of buckets. It could be Evan Richard, who can score with the best of them and should never put a lid on his shot.  It doesn’t matter who it is, how many of them do it, or what kind of numbers they put up.  What matters is one thing, and this is a tip of the cap to an old man who left us recently, but whose legacy will never be forgotten:

Just win, baby.