Basketballs were flying through the air at random last Thursday afternoon at the Klotsche Center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, players loosening up before their pre-game shoot-around prior to taking on Wright State.
Occupying both ends of the court, players worked on their fade-aways, long 3-pointers, maybe some 30-footers – why not?
It was a loose group, and a cohesive one, facts borne out later that evening with an important 68-64 victory over the Raiders that snapped a three-game losing streak.
UWM followed the win over Wright State with a 86-64 weekend victory at the Klotsche over Oakland, bumping their record up to 15-9 overall and 5-5 in the Horizon League. It was a needed pair of victories in advance of their rematch of January’s overtime loss to the conference-leading UW-Green Bay Phoenix at the Resch Center in Green Bay.
The team’s closeness has been evident all season, but creating it was an interesting experiment.
Moore was new to the team as a fifth-year eligible transfer from University of Texas at El Paso. Matt Tiby, JeVon Lyle and Steve McWhorter worked out with the program last year, but were not able to play due to transfer rules.
Jordan Aaron and Thierno Niang weren’t with the team two years ago as transfers from junior college programs.
"It’s worked," said forward Malcolm Moore, who moved from high school to junior college to the University of Texas at El Paso before coming to UWM. "It’s hard (to do). I’ve been part of a situation where you’ve pulled together a bunch of new guys and get them to mesh and this is actually one of the better ones I’ve seen. Everybody gets along."
"Usually you get places and they’ll have people that only like other people and (not) the new guys," Moore said. "When I got here on my visit I felt welcome, as soon as I got here, and it’s one of the reasons I came here. We like each other. Everybody’s friends. We hang out with each other. That’s the most important thing you need when you build a team like this – with new guys you have to have camaraderie, you have to have a chemistry about them."
This year, Akeem Springs (Northern Illinois University), Connor Weas (Lawrence University) and Dan Studer (UW-Stevens Point) are sitting out – but working out – due to transfer rules.
That makes 10 of the 19 players listed on the UWM roster as products of a junior college, or a different four-year program.
It makes for a lot of roster volatility, with players moving on after one year (like Moore) or two (like Aaron) while others come in, essentially redshirt, and learn about the campus and the team (like Tiby and McWhorter).
"I had the opportunity to come up here, get on campus, get a feel for everybody, get a feel for all the players and that really helped me out," Tiby said. "If I didn’t take that step, I wouldn’t have learned the offense as quick as I have, may not have had the chemistry with the players I’ve had already. That half year transition was very, very beneficial for me. I just needed to sit back, relax and just really take in everything that (head) coach (Rob) Jeter was putting on me to become a better basketball player."
"I wanted to see where I could fit in this program and fill a role, so that’s why I wanted to come in and sitting out really helped because I could tell and notice things that the team needed and wanted. I pretty much just took everything as a learning opportunity to come here a half a semester early. I actually thought that was really beneficial for myself."
Panthers assistant coach Chad Boudreau dropped his hands on the stuffed arms of a leather chair in the UWM athletic offices, and laughed at the suggestion of having a giant board with player’s names and graduation years on it to map out the Panthers’ recruiting needs.
"We do do that," he said with a smile. "We do put names on a board: OK, this kid’s here, we need this next year, we know Steve’s going to be graduating, we need a point guard in a year or two, we got bigs, but how are the bigs developing, so you’re watching those bigs – and throughout this whole time we’re always recruiting what we need. But also, at our level, you’ve got to recruit everything. Every year we’re watching and evaluating."
Boudreau, now in his ninth year on Jeter’s staff at UWM, is an important part of the Panthers’ recruiting efforts. His background as a junior college and high school coach help him navigate the ever-changing currents within the recruiting pool.
"Kids transfer more now," he said. "There were 300-some transfers, maybe more than that last year. That’s almost one a school. Kids are leaving more now. They change AAU programs, they change high schools, they change – good, bad, or indifferent. That’s what the world is. They’re leaving schools like crazy, so there’s always going to be kids out there."
At the start of the year, Jeter talked quite a bit about building a program, and this is exactly how to do it at the mid-major level.
Sometimes, a player like McWhorter (Indiana State) spends a year away from home and decides being closer to family is more important than he thought as a high school senior.
There are the junior college players who are looking for that Division I scholarship, to fulfill a dream, and are physically and mentally more ready to contribute immediately to a program. They also only occupy two years of scholarships.
Then there is the college graduate, a player like Moore, who is a literal free agent. They’re highly sought after because of the leadership they can bring off the court and the talent and experience they have on it.
That player also gives you the benefit of having a ready-made contributor available, but one that will be gone in a year to free up a scholarship.
"You want it to be a program, or a system," Boudreau said. "Bo Ryan has a system, Buzz (Williams) has a system. You look at Butler during their run, they had a system. We want to get our system back in place, get guys going in the right direction. We want to win, but we want to win the right way. We want the energy, the toughness, where fans come watch us play and come away saying ‘that’s a great game.’ That’s what we want."
It seems like such a mish-mash of players, all from various places and backgrounds, which might be a recipe for a meltdown in chemistry. But it’s been a perfect blend for the Panthers this year as the program will likely double its win total from last year (eight) and is in the running for hosting a first-round conference tournament game.
"I think (the coaches) have done a very, very good job having all these guys come together," Moore said. "They’re going to have really, really good teams in the future. They have a lot of people they can reload with but I think we can be a really, really good team right now, too."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.