Replacing Jordan Aaron

Maybe the best players are just the ones that frustrate you the most.

After watching Jordan Aaron play poorly at the end of game after game, there was no way a casual observer could go into the conference tournament expecting “Jay-O” to emerge as champion, let alone Tournament MVP. As it turns out, his end of game collapses (dribbling off his foot against Green Bay, not getting off a shot against NIU) had no bearing on the 2014 Horizon League Tournament.

Simply put, he never let the game get behind him. In four games, the Panthers rarely played from behind, with Aaron fueling an offensive rage that blew apart every defense in front of Milwaukee. For every minute he had people biting their nails and looking to the bench, there were three minutes where he would do something worth the price of admission. Kaylon Williams was this frustrating once upon a time. And they’re two of the best players in the Rob Jeter era.

Without Aaron, the Panthers were a pitiful 1-3 during his four-game suspension for breaking team rules. Scrambling to replace a player who was the heart of the offense, Rob Jeter couldn’t get enough out of the rest of his team to beat Youngstown State on the road. They didn’t come close in blowout losses to Cleveland State and UIC, the latter the season’s biggest embarrassment (UIC only won one game in conference during the 2013-14 season).

Springs brings Division I experience to the table for Milwaukee.

Tuesday afternoon, his absence wasn’t felt. as it is with every college basketball team, you move on or your season is dead. “What are we going to do without Jordan Aaron?” is not a question that crosses the mind of any Milwaukee Panthers these days. They’re moving on, getting ready for November 14th’s clash with the Auburn Tigers and their head coach, former Panthers general Bruce Pearl.

In some ways, moving on from Jordan Aaron (and Kyle Kelm) is a similar situation. Fans were asking themselves in April 2005, “What are we going to do without Bruce Pearl?” But the Panthers weren’t. Joah Tucker, Adrian Tigert and the rest of the Panthers put that disappointment aside and made the 2005-06 season their own, winning 22 games and the Horizon League Championship.

Unlike that season, there will be no post-season for Milwaukee in March. There are still banners to be hung, games to be won. There are demons to be conquered: professional, personal. The Panthers have plenty to play for, so there’s no time to think about replacing Jordan Aaron. They’re just doing it. They’ve got some pretty special talent to get it done, too.

Akeem Springs transferred in the summer of 2013 from Northern Illinois, coming off a terrible season themselves, to be a part of a program on the rise. He sat out the 2013-14 championship season due to NCAA rules, fully rested for his first year in Black and Gold. As a freshman at NIU, Springs averaged 7.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game despite playing roughly 20 minutes per game, about 15 points and 6 rebounds per 40 minutes. If he steps up his minutes as a Panther, he could get numbers like that this season.

But how does that stack up against Jordan Aaron? Well, as a freshman at Southeastern Community College in Iowa, Aaron averaged 9.4 points and 2.8 assists per game to go with 2.4 rebounds per game. He definitely put up bigger numbers, but it was against largely weaker talent in the NJCAA’s junior college ranks versus Springs taking on NCAA Division I foes. In his only game over 30 minutes (against Milwaukee), Springs scored 21 points on 50% shooting. But he couldn’t get more court time for the Huskies, playing less than 20 minutes per game in January 2013, leaving the program at the beginning of February for “personal and family reasons” according to coach Mark Montgomery. In Milwaukee, he’s found a home.

Replacing Jordan Aaron doesn’t have to come out of one player. During his suspension, a certain player stepped up and made a difference in a couple of games – when he could stay on the court. JeVon Lyle, who had played very sparingly up to that point (double digit minutes in just four games that season and a healthy scratch in six), came in like a whirlwind, scoring 15 points and racking up four steals and three assists in 28 minutes in the losing effort at Youngstown State.

Lyle had seven steals while filling in for Jordan Aaron during his four-game suspension.

Lyle was very dependable when he was on the court during Aaron’s suspension, but no game was better for him than the road victory at Detroit, when he scored 20 points and three assists to save the Panthers’ season, keeping them in the hunt for a conference tournament home game. His only ho-hum game when he got on the court during the stretch was the blowout at Cleveland State, when he had 19 minutes on the floor but could only come away with five points on 2-of-5 shooting from the floor.

Lyle played the same position as Aaron, which made him shrink when on the floor with #1. Opportunities for Lyle to get on the court without Aaron were next to none. But when Aaron wasn’t on the court, Lyle flourished. He’s already got big expectations attached to him by wearing the legacy #30. If he can stay on the floor – he had four fouls twice during Aaron’s suspension – Lyle could be just the thing the doctor ordered. Over the off-season, Lyle worked on his shot, turning from a streaky shooter at best into a dependable offensive player with yet another facet to his game.

At practice Tuesday, the pair were vocal; they were having fun, Springs cracking jokes in the middle of drills and Lyle using freshman Justin Jordan as a punching bag, yelling “Freshman mistake!” every time Jordan would have a brain lapse on the court in scrimmage. Their antics didn’t distract from practice and they didn’t anger any teammates. Far from being annoyed at being picked on, Justin Jordan was hungry, completing a difficult and beautiful pass the next time down the floor. The first person to give him props? JR Lyle.

So when the Panthers take the court in just under a month at Auburn, they will do so having fun. There’s no pressure to repeat the NCAA Tournament run, but the Panthers have plenty to play for. They’re having fun, because they know they’re putting together one heck of a squad to build on last season’s championship.

There’s no time to worry about replacing the production of any player. They’re too busy having fun building the future, near and far.

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