Healthy Springs could mean turnaround

December was, quite possibly, the worst month in Rob Jeter’s tenure as head men’s basketball coach of the Milwaukee Panthers. The Black and Gold went an unconscionable 2-5 under their embattled leader, beating only Montana and UMKC. Cue the ‘Fire Jeter’ talk, which has become as predictable as Bob Donovan’s opposition to the streetcar project.

Eight losses, five of them by more than 20 points, in a nine-game stretch that left Panthers fans dismayed and reaching for their pitchforks.

But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Milwaukee has played the full season without Austin Arians and Brock Stull – it’s likely there is better shooting and passing on the scout team than the first team – and it has shown. The Panthers are scoring 64.3 points per game, tied for the lowest in the Horizon League with lowly UIC. A big part of the problem from a scoring standpoint is that Cody Wichmann, in the role of picking up Austin Arians’ work, has been streaky at best and missing in action at worst. His 5-of-6 three point shooting on Thursday was a big part of the Panthers winning big against Youngstown State, but there was another player who has jumped out lately.

That would be Akeem Springs, a player the coaches were hoping could average 15 points per game as a sophomore coming off a transfer redshirt. The athletic shooting guard with a big body is very good at driving the lane and drawing contact, but he has often settled for jumpers this season and his numbers showed it: 28.6% from three, 37.4% overall from the field. His scoring average of 6.9 ppg going into the Detroit game wasn’t even half of what Jeter’s staff was hoping.

Why was that? Well, it’s been reported here that Springs was dealing with a sprained hand he suffered late in the Auburn game. During that loss, Springs scored 21 points and the Panthers nearly spoiled Bruce Pearl’s debut. Then he came out with a sprained hand and the Panthers were putting their hopes at shooting guard into a player who shot 8-for-49 over his next seven games (16.3%). Something was seriously going on.

“I didn’t know until two days before Montana that it was a break. I thought it was just a sprain so I tried to play through it,” Springs said. Training staff were unaware of the severity of the injury, likely due to the fact that Springs is a competitor and probably downplayed the pain. Once they figured out that it was a break, Brandon Wells and the training program knew what they were dealing with and attacked the real problem.

“Started feeling better Montana game. But when it got hit it still hurt a lot. The first game I was able to take contact and it not hurt was Detroit.” That game, on January 4th, was the first of a three game stretch where Milwaukee has seen a brand new Akeem Springs.

Milwaukee’s shooting guard has been attacking the rim, more sure of himself with a healthy hand. He’s shooting 63.3% from the field over the last three games and averaging 15.7 points per game. Springs is 7-for-10 from the free throw line and able to play 34.7 minutes per game. His points per game average has jumped from 6.9 to 8.6 in just three games, and could be headed for double digits if he keeps up this pace.

Just some food for thought: if you add the difference of 15.7 to 6.9 – roughly nine points per game – to the final scores of each Panther game between the Auburn game where he got hurt and the Detroit one where he felt no pain in his hand, the Panthers go from 6-12 to 9-9. Forget the added benefit of his defense, just that three game swing makes things look much better.

The Panthers wouldn’t be world-beaters. They wouldn’t have won any high-major games, or any of their conference games. They wouldn’t even be over .500. But the season outlook would be significantly different.

Are we going to get a resurgence and challenge for the Horizon League Title with a hot-shooting Cody Wichmann and a healthy Akeem Springs? That’s not a tall order as much as it’s a Starbucks Trenta order.

It’s really up to the players themselves. Can they put aside individual dreams for the good of the team, following the order of Rob Jeter? Are they going to forget the APR ban and work hard to leave an impression this season going into next year? We shall see.

Being banged up is no longer an acceptable excuse. It’s time to go to work.

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