By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Jan 10, 2014 at 1:03 PM

The college basketball season is "just" 17 games old for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers, but there are only 12 regular season games remaining before the Horizon League Tournament begins on March 4.

The conference season is "only" three games old, but the Panthers’ host the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Phoenix on Sunday in a game where a victory would pull them into a tie for first place and a loss would drop them two games behind in the loss column.

Could this game, one way or another, help define what this team is – or could be – depending on how they play?

"I don’t know about all that," head coach Rob Jeter said with a slight shrug. "I just think that we’re still a relatively young group, inexperienced group together and when things are going good, we’re fine. When things get a little off center a little bit, that’s where you can see some of our inexperience. That’s what’s going to take more games and more time together and quite honestly, a little bit more success."

Yet, the game does mean something – even as Jeter stresses that every game on the schedule means as much as the next, or the one previous.

"I think there is a lot of parity, although I think Green Bay, by far, is the best team in the league," he admitted.

The Phoenix were picked by the coaches to win the conference after finishing third last year and the Panthers, coming off an eight-win season, were picked last.

"I think this will (be a litmus test), Panthers forward Austin Arians said. "So this is obviously a huge test for us,"

Then he smiled a little.

"Especially since we were picked last."

"We’re excited," point guard Steve McWhorter added. "People don’t expect much from us this season, especially in conference being picked last, so we’re just ready to prove people wrong."

The Panthers have played with that chip on their shoulder all season, and they’ve reaped the benefits with a level of play that mirrors 20-win campaigns of 2010 and 2012 than the slump last year.

The biggest difference between this year and last year for UWM, at least on paper, can be seen when they transition to the offensive end.

Last season, guards Paris Gulley (14.2) and Jordan Aaron (12.8) were the only players to average in double figures whereas this season Matt Tiby (13.9), Kyle Kelm (13.2), Aaron (12.4) and Arians (11.8) have been consistent forces.

"Last year we had more of a guard presence and really, if Jordan was on, we had a chance, and if Jordan wasn’t, then we struggled," Jeter said. "That’s not taking away anything form the bigs we had last year, but this year those two guys are a lot more efficient."

And McWhorter is right behind at 8.6 points per game and leads the team with 3.5 assists per game.

"I try to facilitate and get my teammates in the best position to score," McWhorter said. "We have inside threats with Tiby and Kyle, J.J. (Panoske) and Malcolm (Moore) and then the outside threats with Jordan and Austin so it’s pick your poison sometimes."

As team, the Panthers are averaging over 10 points more per game. And while they aren’t exactly an offensive powerhouse on a national scale – they’re ranked 168th in the country in scoring and 155th in field goal percentage – they are a more diverse and consistent group.

"When you have multiple guys, that means everyone is getting into an offensive rhythm and it’s not just one guy dominating the ball," Jeter said. "I thought last year, the difference for us, is we did a lot of dribbling, a lot of one-on-one and we’re doing a lot more sharing the ball and making the extra pass."

UWM has put up 80 points or more seven times already after reaching that total just four times all of last year.

"It’s anybody’s night with this team," Arians said. "One person could score two points one night but then go off for 20 the next. I think team’s not being able to prepare for just one person, or one or two people, really helps this team a lot.

"Even against Oakland (Wednesday night), everyone who got in the game scored. This year, I think the fact that anybody can step up and be a huge part of a game is (speaks volumes) for this team’s potential and what we can do on the court and in the game."


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

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.