It’s the dream of every college basketball player: to play in the NCAA tournament. And for the UWM basketball players, that dream was realized this past week. The Panthers clinched a berth in the Big Dance after tearing through the Horizon League tournament on their way to a conference championship.
Unfortunately, they lost in their opening game to Villanova 53-73.
Few saw this coming after Milwaukee’s disappointing 8-24 season a year ago. After being picked last in the preseason Horizon League poll, the Panthers knew they had a lot of hard work ahead of them.
“[Being picked last] was always in the back of our minds. We just knew we had to come out and prove everybody wrong,” said starting forward Kyle Kelm.
A big part of the turnaround this season has been the leadership of the senior class. Coach Rob Jeter said the willingness of the seniors to accept their roles has been key in developing a tight-knit group.
The team was led by its six seniors: Jordan Aaron, Kyle Kelm, Malcolm Moore, Quinton Gustavson, Mitch Roelke and Bobo Niang.
Jeter said Niang, having dealt with injuries all year, has figured out a way to be productive by helping on the bench.
“And then you bring in a brand new player, Malcolm Moore, first year with this group, and he’s accepted his role,” said Jeter. “And as a result we have a very cohesive group.”
With several new players on this year’s squad, it was incumbent upon the seniors to get the new guys up to speed.
“We had a lot of new faces this year that [the seniors] had to teach about the league in order to achieve what we just achieved,” Niang said.
After a hot start found the Panthers sitting at 11-4 on January 3, the Panthers cooled off in Horizon League play. Milwaukee lost their final four games of the regular season, including an 80-58 loss at home on Senior Night to last-place Illinois-Chicago. The Senior Night loss was an eye-opener for Milwaukee players.
“We struggled on senior night,” Gustavson said. “That was really a low point for us. We really rallied together after that.”
Kelm said, after Milwaukee’s last season slide, the seniors knew they had to do something, or their basketball careers could be over quickly.
“Us seniors knew we had to pick our team up and take some leadership roles,” Kelm said. “We knew we had to get something going before it all ended. Our season could’ve been done any time in the past week and a half.”
Directly influencing Milwaukee’s four-game losing streak was the four-game suspension of senior guard Jordan Aaron. Aaron came back in time for the league tournament, and felt he had something to prove.
“I felt like I let my guys down, I know how much they needed me and how much I wanted to be out there,” Aaron said. “I told them that if they could finish off strong, when I came back, I would give it my all, whatever I had to do, to get us wins.”
Aaron came up huge for Milwaukee in the tournament, averaging 20.5 points per game, including 28 in the Panthers’ upset victory over top-seeded UW-Green Bay and 18 in the championship game against Wright State.
“They believed in me and I believed in them and we made something special,” Aaron said.
“[Aaron] just wanted another opportunity to make things right, and that’s life,” Jeter said. “When you get thrown a curve-ball or something doesn’t go your way, what are you going to do? Are you going to feel sorry? Are you going to place the blame on someone else? Or are you going to accept responsibility and figure out how to make things right? And Jordan was a great example of that.”
Now that their dream of playing in the NCAA tournament has been fulfilled, the UWM seniors are just soaking it all in.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” Aaron said. “This is everybody’s dream when you’re playing Division I basketball.”