MILWAUKEE – The Panthers are coming off a season in which they were not eligible for postseason play due to low APR scores, but the team has corrected that problem this season and is a trendy pick to be a force in the Horizon League thanks to key returning players and stability at head coach (this is Rob Jeter’s 11th season).
The main player to watch for Milwaukee is senior forward Matt Tiby, a solid producer who earned second team all-Horizon League honors last season and is a preseason first-team all-league pick. Tiby talked about the team’s mentality for the upcoming season.
“Our play is just gonna match our intensity right now,” he said. “We just want to go out there and prove to ourselves that we can compete at this level. There’s a lot of people that don’t look at us as contenders, but we view ourselves as contenders in the league and we just want to go into the season and play as hard as we can.
Losing point guard Steve McWhorter, who was a catalyst for the offense last season, to graduation, leaves a void that will be filled by a newcomer to start the season. Early returnee candidates for the role included returnees Akeem Springs, Justin Jordan and Cody Wichmann, but none of them assumed the floor general role.
Jordan Johnson, a diminutive junior college transfer who has two years of eligibility remaining, was a first-team NJCAA All-American last season. He was the starting point guard on a John Wood Community College team that advanced to the NJCAA Division II title game. Jeter said that he is the starting point guard to begin the season.
Other newcomers to watch, according to Jeter, are JayQuan McCloud, a transfer freshman guard from Waukegan, Ill. who spent the first semester of last season at Ohio Valley Conference power Murray State, and Brock Stull, a redshirt freshman wing from Caledonia, Wis.
Johnson will have a bevy of weapons to distribute the ball to, as Tiby figures to once again be a force on the low block, Wichmann should continue his sharp shooting ability, and Springs is another returning double figure scorer whose athletic ability enables him to slash and hit the boards hard for his position. In addition, Austin Arians, a swingman on the Panthers’ surprise NCAA Tournament team in 2014 who showed ability to score in bunches, largely thanks to his shot, returns after missing last year due to injury. Jeter thinks that Arians and Springs could join Tiby as an all-league player this season. Finally, senior forward J.J. Panoske returns to give Tiby a solid complement on the interior. A 6-10 shot-blocking and rebounding force, Panoske will not be counted on to shoulder that much of an offensive load, but his ability on the glass and as a rim protector will remain a boon for the team. In addition, he is one of the many experienced players on the roster.
In general, the interior should be a strength of the team, as Tiby, Panoske, and the Prahl twins (Brett and Alex), both sophomores, return to form a solid frontcourt.
Team chemistry and momentum from last season’s strong finish (7-2 in the final nine games) are, according to Jeter, huge positives coming into this season. All but one of the team’s major contributors is back, meaning that the team has a lot of experience and camaraderie. Because of these factors, Milwaukee has increased expectations. However, Jeter said that the team is up to it because no one sets a higher standard for Panthers’ basketball than himself and his players. He pointed to the preseason prognostications as nothing more than respect for the program, and he cites the team’s surprise NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014 following a last-place finish the season before and the preseason last-place predictions for that season as examples of how anything can happen.
One of the biggest factors for this year’s team will be that it is playing for something other than pride again. Last year, thanks to the postseason ban, everyone in and around the program knew that the final regular season game was the last one. However, the team got back to its winning ways in the classroom, though Jeter pointed out that the team’s overall grade point average has remained around a 3.0 over the past few seasons, and that other factors contributed to the low APR scores. However, he commended how they stepped up academically and how they put in community service, basically showing that they were committed to repairing any damage done to their image (there was not really any) and to academic excellence and giving back. In addition, Tiby talked about how the team will approach playing for the postseason.
“We’ve gotta pick up an edge, that’s what we’re really looking for,” he said. “In practice right now, we’re playing with an edge and just keeping that throughout the whole season. It’s gonna be a long season, so we’re just trying to keep that edge and, hopefully, contend for the title.”
However, Jeter said that the approach is the same and that nothing changes as far as preparation for games and intensity. He added that the only real difference is that there is no way of knowing when the season is over this time around.
Milwaukee won its exhibition game at the Klotsche Center against UW-Parkside, 81-62. The team opens the regular season on Friday, Nov. 13, in Santa Clara, Calif. for the Cable Car Classic, a round-robin tournament where they will play three games in three days over the weekend (vs. Denver, Lipscomb, and host Santa Clara, respectively). The Panthers’ first home game will be at UWM Panther Arena vs. Trinity International one week from the season opener, as part of another early-season tournament, the Gulf Coast Showcase. Milwaukee will travel to Estero, Fla. after that game.