Exhibition goes the way it should

Kyle Kelm is becoming a solid low-block contributor.

Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing a basketball team blast the opposition.  Milwaukee’s game last year against Butler in early January was one of the most fun times I’ve had as a Panther fan, at least as a fan sitting in the seats instead of standing in a student section.  But that’s not what I want from an exhibition game, and I’m glad we didn’t see that on Saturday night at the Klotsche Center.

In front of a crowd that easily outstripped the fans that came to see a regular season game against Western Michigan last year, the Panthers struggled mightily without Tony Meier and Kaylon Williams, found themselves down big to a hungry D-II opponent from just a stone’s throw away, and in the end did what needed to be done to win.

That’s what I want from an exhibition game.  A tough, hard fought battle that teaches you something about yourself and your team.  Ultimately, I want a victory, because there’s no faster way to lose student interest than to lose an exhibition game against an area D-II or D-III team.  Picking up an easy victory, however, would have taught us nothing about the Panthers.  This is what I learned from Saturday night’s game.

James Haarsma is going to be a monster player for the Panthers and we won’t have to wait beyond Saturday.  He’s strong, athletic, scores in the block and defends well.  He plays aggressively, and that got him in foul trouble early.  I understand that he didn’t put in any of the shots he took in limited time, but his spot in the starting lineup is not up for grabs.  He was more focused on getting other players shots, which was obvious in that he ended with two assists and only three shot attempts.  Haarsma spent the game trying to help the coaches figure out who else needs to join him in the starting lineup.  That could be Demetrius Harris, but he easily could begin the season on the bench in favor of Kyle Kelm. Harris has a lot of raw skill and is immensely powerful.  It’s obvious that he’s stronger than Anthony Hill was, but Anthony spent years learning low post moves that made him one of the best post players in program history.  If Harris wants to join that group – hell, if Harris wants to join the starting lineup – he’s going to have to learn that his place is in the low block.  There were too many times when I found Harris playing on the perimeter – not looking for the random three like a young Hill would do, but looking somewhat lost in an offense that he hasn’t quite grasped yet.  He can be very dominant, we saw flashes of that, but he also can find himself out of position often.  If Haarsma is on the floor it won’t be terrible, but if Haarsma is on the bench, we need Harris to be on the block.  We may not replace Hill with one or the other, but if they work together, they’ll end up better than Hill alone – they did combine for twelve rebounds on the night.

Of all the players on the court, there is no one I want to see out there more than Evan Richard.  He was ready last year, but redshirting allowed him to spend a year getting up to the speed of the college game and will make his fifth-year senior year all the more entertaining.  Rumors of his defensive lapses did not show often in the game.  I found him to be a tenacious defender and much quicker laterally than Tone Boyle was.  On the offensive end, there were several plays where I wanted to see him take it to the hole or stop and pop, but he deferred to other players.  My first thought was that he was hesitant, but he was very deliberate in all his movements so I am assuming that like Haarsma, he deferred to other players who don’t have their place in the rotation set.  If Richard plays 20 minutes in a game the rest of the season, I hope it’s because he is in foul trouble or someone else has the hot hand, because he’s someone I want on the court at all times if he is able.  Ja’Rob McCallum, on the other hand, may have led the team in points but was also proving that he is still a volume shooter.  The thought that Simo Häyhä (that’s McCallum’s new nickname. I don’t know what it means but I like it) has an easier time shooting with a hand in his face than on an open shot occured to me several times, but either way I want to see him more consistent on his shot.  I was impressed with his new game – by the end of the season, we may say that Ja’Rob is the player that changed himself the most.

Last year, an occasional drive on the baseline accompanied his jump shot, and most of the time it was a feeble attempt.  This year, McCallum is far more assertive and ready to take on the world.  In the Parkside game, his drives to the basket helped the Panthers close the deficit.  If he can get his jump shot to be consistent, I’m all for him playing 20 minutes. He’s not far off, but he still isn’t there.  He’s still in that mode where he is the offensive spark off the bench, not a guy who will score 15 night in and night out.  Which is a problem I have.  Where is this guy?

The obvious answer is Tony Meier, who is sidelined with a leg injury that will keep him out until the beginning of December.  But I want to know who will carry us through the brunt of our non-conference schedule.  Haarsma, Richard, and Kelm all look like they could be that guy, but 0ne we may be overlooking is Paris Gulley.  He scored eight points on 3-for-7 shooting, but I think the first-game jitters got to Gulley more than the other players.  His shot wasn’t rushed, but you could tell it wasn’t as squared away as it was during the three-point contest at Panther Madness.  He’s going to be a good player and I hope he can fill it up, but don’t be surprised if early on we lean on him more as a defensive stopper.  That’s where I felt he did the best on Saturday, holding Parkside players to poor shooting on the perimeter (Parkside was 2-for-8 from three-point land when guards were shooting).

Our problems in the past haven’t been a lack of quality shooters, but a lack of quality shots.

Shaq Boga played much like he did in high school – when the ball was in his hands, he was going to try and make something happen.  He’s got the potential to be better than any guard on the team, but it’s going to take awhile to get the kinks out of his game.  I want to see him actively find the best possible shooter on the court at any given time, and I want him to do it with clean, crisp passes from a stand still, off the dribble, on a drive, etc. And of course I want him to continue to fill it up if he is the best possible shooter.  As for the incident where he wanted to stay on the court following getting hurt, don’t take it as selfish.  He wanted to show us that he was committed to winning, and I’m happy that he showed that kind of willpower in the game.  He’s definitely the kind of person I want on the court, but his ability to lead the offense is going to need to be there soon because Kaylon Williams is definitely out this Saturday against Southwest Minnesota State and perhaps Northern Illinois as well.  If Shaq proves to be unable to lead at point guard right away, then Ja’Rob McCallum and Paris Gulley have to share point guard duties and that’s not something I’m particularly pleased about.  They are both shooting guards and need to be playing that position on the court.  Shaq’s instincts will be enough to get him through SWMSU (yikes I thought we had an identity problem), but we need to establish an inside-outside game and find the best shooter. Our problems in the past haven’t been a lack of quality shooters, but a lack of quality shots – we’ve taken too many contested shots that lead to misses and defensive rebounds for the other team.  Kicking it down low to Haarsma, Harris and Kelm will be important and I want Boga to get that quickly.

Speaking of Kelm, I wanted to expand upon how impressed I am with the transformation he has taken this offseason.  Bulking up and becoming more assertive with the ball is a good thing, and I’m happy to see that he’s ready for prime time.  Having Kelm able to play the same game Tony Meier plays will help stop the bleeding while Meier is out with the calf injury.  Perhaps missing Williams and Meier during the first few games is a blessing in disguise, because it’s that trial by fire that will get Shaq Boga and Kyle Kelm the game experience they need to become reliable everyday replacements for those players down the road.

Ryan Allen continues to do what he does best – play with high energy, defend tenaciously, and play the human highlight reel.  Allen’s ability to drive the lane is electric.  He needs to get better at finishing around the basket and I’d still like to see him develop a legitimate jump shot, but he’s a consistent performer who is too good to keep on the bench.

I was annoyed by the lack of cohesion among the team early on in the game.  It was a big reason they went down early.  But the important thing is that they turned it around, found it within themselves to come back from a sizable deficit, and won the game.

All in all, I’m pleased with the game.  We knew Leneal Harris was going to come in and play his lights out in front of the fans that almost called him their own, and Jeremy Saffold played out of his mind.  For all intents and purposes, Saturday was the Super Bowl for Parkside’s fan base – they were much more intense and involved than Panther fans were, which is OK because their time against D-I competition, especially competition with another UW school, is limited.  Luke Reigel runs a great program and I’m sure they’ll do much better this season than they did last year.

So let’s get this show on the road!  First stop, U.S. Cellular Arena, Saturday at 1 p.m.!

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