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Two Hundred Minutes: a Player-by-Player Breakdown of the Annual Instrasquad Scrimmage

If Thursday’s Annual Intrasquad Scrimmage is any indication of what’s to come, Milwaukee Panthers fans have a lot of positives to look forward to as the 2015-16 season gets underway.

Every preseason, Milwaukee Athletics put on an intrasquad scrimmage for fans towards the end of October, giving them a look at how practice is coming along. It’s a good event for everyone – the players get game action in front of a crowd, assistant coaches get a chance to run a team during a game, head coach Rob Jeter gets to sit back and observe the program, fans get a taste of what’s coming up, and hoops nuts like me get to over-analyze the team on the court.

To be sure, not a whole lot can be inferred from one glorified practice. For every Steve McWhorter who shines, there’s an Evan Richard who looks like an all-conference performer and never pans out. Richard, Shaq Boga, Tim Flowers and Roman Gentry have all been breakout players in scrimmages that didn’t make it in the program.

Still, it’s hard not to be excited about JayQuan McCloud and Jordan Johnson.

McCloud showed a level of ball control the Panthers rarely see in Black and Gold. He made simple dribbling look like an art form. Johnson showed no fear, dribbling into traffic consistently and taking control with fast breaks off of simple rebounds.

Tiby is Tiby. He's the easiest lock for the rotation.

Tiby is Tiby. He’s the easiest lock for the rotation.

There are definite problems that the Panthers need to iron out as a team before the season gets going. Transition defense was taken advantage of by Jordan Johnson’s quick play. Preseason jitters translated into poor shot selection in the first half. The front court is still thin, and with J.J. Panoske on the bench we got to see just how thin it can be.

Individually, the team is all over the place. There are more than enough players to put together a solid eight-man rotation, yet there are also a group of players who have a lot to work on if they’re going to crack in and get some minutes this season.

Without further ado, here’s my observations based on 40 minutes of glorified practice yesterday (keep in mind this isn’t a ranking – there are players who ‘need work’ who most definitely will play a lot):

READY TO GO

JayQuan McCloud: The transfer freshman guard from Waukegan hit the ground running in the intrasquad scrimmage, scoring 11 of his 17 points in the first half. His aforementioned ball control is a huge plus, which will be a big help for Milwaukee as they try to mitigate turnovers moving forward. His mind seemed to be a couple steps ahead of certain players who aren’t in the rotation, and that led to some missed opportunities.

He can shoot, he can score, he can run. He’s built, a bit leaner than Akeem Springs but in great shape. When he’s done with the semester transfer redshirt, he’ll instantly be a top of the rotation player. My guess is it’s going to be hard to keep him on the bench; I’m trying to decide if I’d rather see him start or be the first player off the bench. There’s merits to either, but I’m expecting he’ll be the sixth man this season.

Jordan Johnson: I thought of it in the first five minutes of seeing him play, but I kept it to myself because I didn’t want to get people too amped up. And then I heard it from several other people after the scrimmage was over: Jordan Johnson is like a hybrid of Jordan Aaron and Chris Hill. If that sounds like high praise, it’s because it is.

He didn’t show the circus shot ability of Jay-O or the tremendous leadership of Chris Hill (although we got to see it with Hill himself barking orders on the sidelines). But Jordan Johnson has no fear. That’s the kind of sentence that conjures images of Hill diving under a table for a loose ball in the NCAA Tournament or Jay-O burying Davidson with a huge circus bucket at the Klotsche Center.

I once wrote that Jordan Aaron shouldn’t be trusted in game-ending situations. He took that, got mad and turned into the ultimate crunch time player at the end. Johnson may have not been playing in a true game last night, but he was sinking free throws right when he needed to – at the end.

He commands the ball when he’s in possession of it, and he has a natural feel for the flow of the game, pushing the ball in transition when you’re not expecting it to work. He’ll draw a lot of fouls because of his ability to get to the spot he needs to draw them.

It wasn’t long ago that Rob Jeter spent years without a true starting point guard in the program; Ricky Franklin spent his entire career playing out of position. Since 2010, however, the only season Milwaukee has been without a point guard was in 2012-13, when Aaron was forced into the position. They won’t need to worry about that in 2015-16 – Jordan Johnson is for sure their man.

Akeem Springs looks to take a big jump in a junior year after an injury-hampered 2014-15.

Akeem Springs looks to take a big jump in a junior year after an injury-hampered 2014-15.

Akeem Springs: Three players in and we haven’t even left Waukegan. Springs is still an excellent scorer, still able to play bigger than he is, still ready to run. There’s nothing to see here that you didn’t know at the end of the 2014-15 season – Springs is a wing who can play small forward well, is bigger and stronger than most Horizon League guards, and knows how to just plain score.

We didn’t get a whole lot of his shooting ability on display, but that passion that was his calling card is still evident. He’s as close to a lock as a starter as you can get; the only question I have is will he or Austin Arians score more?

This brings to mind a difficult question: are there not enough minutes for the talent in the backcourt? Springs, Johnson, McCloud and Arians are all worthy of 30 minutes per game and they’re all juniors or younger. JR Lyle and Justin Jordan are both worthy of 20-plus minutes per game, and Cody Wichmann plays offensively as a guard. He’s worth 20 minutes a game. That’s 180 minutes between seven guys, an untenable situation. The competition is fierce. More on the rotation later.

Austin Arians: If it were possible, he added to his arsenal of offensive moves. Freshman year he could shoot, sophomore year he could cut, and last night he displayed post moves that were polished. He’s phenomenal offensively. Where he needed some work last night was defensively, he got beaten by JayQuan McCloud. But my expectation is that Arians won’t be guarding the best off-guard on opposing teams, and I trust him fully to take the third guard.

Interestingly enough, I think Arians fits better as a two-guard with Springs as the three, just based on his shooting ability – he’s far and away one of the best shooters in the conference, and the year off has just made him that much deadlier in all facets of his game. I got a good chuckle when Detroit fan Commissioner said he didn’t expect Austin Arians to challenge for second team, and stuck to his guns when Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker both got preseason second team honors while having strikingly similar numbers to Arians (who got a year off from games to work on his individual skills).

He’s a coach’s kid, so you know he’s not going to sit back and take time getting into the game. He’s no longer a liability on defense (actually he hasn’t been for a couple years now). I don’t think the question is whether or not he gets on the second team. I think the question is whether or not he’ll have the ball in his hands enough to put up the numbers to match his skill set.

Matt Tiby: The answer to how far this team will go hangs on the shoulders of Matt Tiby more than any other player. Milwaukee is so loaded in the front court that they could finish in the top 4 of the Horizon League even if they were to lose two rotational guards for the season. The same can’t be said for the post, where Tiby is the only sure thing. Should the Panthers lose him, they’re looking at vintage Villanova four-guard sets.

As for his play, he is who he has been from day one. He’s got an unrelenting motor and he’s highly skilled. He can play with his back to the basket or from the outside. Very few power forwards in America can take an outside shot without drawing gasps from the crowd. He boxes out on every play like his life depends on it. There’s no quit in him, but you knew that already.

The big difference this season is you’ll notice his role has changed. No longer will he need to be the do-everything guy – now it’s about filling up the stat sheet with points and rebounds. Getting at least one touch to Tiby in the post should be an aim for 75% of possessions. He displayed a knack for an inside-out game with Panther guards last night that shows there’s immediate chemistry on the court with new players.

A big concern for me moving forward would be managing his minutes. I’d go so far as to keep him under 30 minutes per game throughout most of the non-conference season so he doesn’t get worn out. His condition come March is of the utmost importance.

Justin Jordan: The true sophomore has definitely taken some strides as the heir apparent at starting point guard. It’s going to take a little bit of time to be 100% ready to run the team, but Jordan is progressing real nicely. In Thursday’s scrimmage, he showed composure under defensive pressure and looked comfortable running with the starters. He used some nice inside-outside game that led to a couple buckets, so he’ll be right at home getting the ball into Tiby or Panoske.

Over the summer, in addition to strength and conditioning, Jordan worked on his shot mechanics. Too often last season, he would drift on jump shots or take too wide of a stance. He looks much better, although we didn’t get to see a lot of his shooting last night.

Jordan defensively is ready. When opposing guards drove to the basket during the scrimmage, he wasn’t the one guarding them. Getting on the court more will increase his stat line – scoring five points and 2.2 rebounds per game last season isn’t such a small number when you consider he only played 21 minutes per game. Getting him close to 30 could put him at 10 points per game as a sophomore. I don’t expect him to play 30 minutes per game, but that’s due to the unprecedented depth at guard under Jeter’s tenure and not a lack of skill from Justin Jordan.

He won’t start, but he doesn’t need to. He’ll be the primary backup for Jordan Johnson at point guard, which should lead the Panthers to have a backcourt that is more rested than most of the conference come March. Besides that, it’s all about mitigating mistakes and progressing as a point guard, because he’s going to be handed the keys to the car after Jordan Johnson graduates.

NEEDS SOME WORK

Cody Wichmann: Milwaukee’s sharpshooter had me wondering in the first half how he’s going to get on the court. The second half reminded me why he’s indispensable. Cody is incredibly important to this team, if only for the fact that after Austin, he’s the best shot from outside. He missed a couple open shots in the first half and looked as though the game was passing him by, then he ended up tied for the most points in the scrimmage because he sank everything he shot in the second stanza.

The problem here is that it still seems as though Wichmann is a spot-shooter. Arians developed from his freshman to sophomore year into a more polished offensive player; Wichmann doesn’t have the speed or strength of Arians, so he didn’t grow as a complete player offensively last season. The good news is that it looks like he’ll be even better from the outside after shooting 40.2% from three last year. When the Panthers need three points, he’s as reliable as Arians from outside. My guess is he’ll end up somewhere between 45 and 50% from three this season.

Cody Wichmann has proved invaluable with his deft shooting touch.

Cody Wichmann has proved invaluable with his deft shooting touch.

He’s not a total liability on defense, but his lateral quickness needs to improve or else he’s not going to be able to be in the game when we need both offense and defense. That isn’t to say he won’t play; I think Wichmann is still capable of 20 minutes per game and shouldn’t lose too many minutes. However, he did benefit from Austin Arians’ redshirt and will likely be the primary backup at that spot.

The best thing about Cody Wichmann is that you know you have him. Milwaukee wouldn’t have won the 2014 Horizon League Title game without his unbelievably huge three-pointer. In a pinch, he’s available. He’s not an offensive mismatch or a 15-points-per-game threat, but he’s a threat to score every second he’s on the floor.

To put it another way: opposing teams will never be able to leave Wichmann unchecked. It doesn’t seem like it, but it’s a huge deal even if Cody doesn’t touch the ball. They know he’s there, and they know that if left unchecked he’s going to bury a three-pointer in your front yard and throw dirt on top of it.

JR Lyle: It’s hard to imagine, but the odd man out of the rotation just might be JeVon Lyle. He has the talent – he can handle the ball, he can drive the lane, he can defend the guard spots, he can pass – he just can’t excel at any of those things. He is always not-quite-good-enough to be a star, but you can count on him to eat up minutes and not kill you in any way. The dumb turnovers of his sophomore year were gone last season, and he was able to play 23 minutes per game – it seems like he’s looking at being the third off-guard after Springs and McCloud.

Like much of the roster, I don’t worry about having him in the game – there just seems to be always someone else I’d rather see in there. This isn’t a knock on Lyle as much as it’s a testament to the roster Jeter’s staff has put together. Lyle would have been a sure-fire starter on at least six or seven of Jeter’s teams. Milwaukee just has a glut of talent right where Lyle is.

He may be best off rebranding himself as a “glue guy.” Chasing after every loose ball, boxing everyone out of the gym, and coming through with stats when needed, Lyle’s got the tools to do it. He has the ability to play more positions than some guards, so he’ll find the court.

The benefit Lyle has, and what will keep him in the game besides his jump-out-the-gym athleticism, is his ability to play a decent point guard. That’s going to be needed less this season than it was last season because Justin Jordan should be better, but Lyle can do the job. My expectation is he’ll still play twenty minutes per game, spread over three guard spots. He was the closest player I had to be “Ready to Go” that didn’t quite make it there.

Brett Prahl: The talent is there for ScholarshiPrahl. He has the skills offensively to be a great post player. He has the body to push around just about anybody. I just don’t know if he’s got the motor or the playbook down. There seemed to be a few spots during the scrimmage where the game was moving too fast for him. Not physically – he can run the court with the best true post players – but mentally. It seemed like he wasn’t 100% knowledgeable about where to be on the floor, and he wasn’t ready for a couple passes.

He does know how to beat his brother, which makes it fun to watch these scrimmages. However, this stat may be important: 100% of opposing players in the Horizon League were not born from the same parents on the same day. That’s a joke of course, but I feel like he should be further along at this point – he is a junior academically, after all. The good news? He won’t be relied on to start unless there’s injuries. The bad news? He’s got to get better this year, because if head coach Rob Jeter can’t trust him to be on the court, that only means a heavier work load for Matt Tiby and J.J. Panoske, which will make things tougher for the front court come March.

Once he gets up to speed and knows the system, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. We just don’t know if he’ll get there fast enough. You don’t go from playing sparing minutes to being a stud center – there has to be a time where you’re a valuable rotational guy. He’s firmly behind seniors Tiby and JJ Panoske in the pecking order, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a big part of the current team.

Brett Prahl needs to take a big leap, not just for his future prospects but also to take the pressure off Tiby and Panoske.

Brett Prahl needs to take a big leap, not just for his future prospects but also to take the pressure off Tiby and Panoske.

Dan Studer: For what Milwaukee is looking for out of Studer, he’s got it down. He’s definitely limited on the court, but you can tell he would dominate D-III. There’s room on our roster for a guy like that. Milwaukee needs guys who don’t make mistakes; the 2009 and 2010 teams were buoyed by Jason Averkamp. He even started due to a dearth of talent, and the case could be made that by the time they were eliminated in the Horizon League Tournament, they were the second-best team. Studer is never going to be a star, or even a starter. But you can give five minutes per game to lesser players, and there may come a time this season when we’ll be happy to have him. As I said before, the less Tiby plays in January and February, the more rested he is in March – and Studer can help a bit there.

 

NOT THERE YET

Alex Prahl: Like his twin, Alex Prahl has the body to make it in the Horizon League. But he had the body on Day 1, when he was definitely going to be a redshirt as a freshman. Thursday’s scrimmage showed how listless he can be at times, and he doesn’t have the polished offensive skill set of his brother. I’d love to see him spend 90% of his skills practice working on becoming the best defender possible, and forget trying to be an offensive machine.

He does have defensive skills, but not enough to put him in the rotation yet. The Prahls are only sophomores in terms of eligibility, so I’m not worried about them getting there eventually. But Alex doesn’t really cost the program much since he’s a preferred walk-on – Brett, on the other hand, is a full scholarship player. So I’m expecting more out of him this season.

Brock Stull: He’s a strong shooter, an above-average freshman defender, and not lost as a ball handler. But last night, Stull was practically invisible. He’s got the framework to be a player on this team, and he fits the mold that Jeter and his staff have found to work very well for them – mid-6-feet wing that’s a killer outside shot. It’s a variation of the Tony Meier mold that Austin Arians has expanded upon and Cody Wichmann has found value in.

The difference between Stull and those players is that in the scrimmages, they showed early on they have value. Stull didn’t show that last night. Maybe it’s because of the backcourt talent boon. Maybe it’s because he’s not ready. Either way, his redshirt freshman year will likely be a second, playing redshirt year that just so happens to take up some eligibility.

JR Lyle should take more of a "glue guy" approach to 2015-16.

JR Lyle should take more of a “glue guy” approach to 2015-16.

He can find real value on this team, this year for one reason: Alec Peters. He should watch Peters play, and do everything he can to model his own game after the Valpo star. Give the team an Alec Peters-type player to practice against all year, they’ll be more prepared for him when VU comes along. Stull’s no Alec Peters, but a scout team guy that plays like Peters would be huge for Milwaukee.

Derek Rongstad: I was fairly impressed by the walk-on last night. He has more presence than a walk-on usually has. You can tell he’s hungry, and that’s a good thing. He’s not going to be a star ever, and you hope Milwaukee’s never going to be in the situation where a walk-on guard has to play significant minutes again, but Rongstad can find himself a place in this program.

He’s assertive, which is good. He makes mistakes, which is understandable. He still needs to progress as a player, because even if they don’t catch lightning in a bottle and he becomes a rotational guy, the Panthers still need good looks on the scout team. This will certainly be a year for that.

Baylor Peterson: You’ve got spunk, kid. The newest player on the roster is like Rongstad or Studer – he’s not here to make buckets. He’s here to get better and make other people better on the scout team. Still, it was nice to see him take chances in the scrimmage yesterday. You can never have too much confidence.

INCOMPLETE

J.J. Panoske: Sitting out last night (he’s good to go by next Thursday’s exhibition opener), Panoske is bigger. For the first time since the summer after his freshman year, Panoske was 100% healthy. He packed on the pounds, and he’s barely recognizable. Even without playing last night or last week at the Tip-Off Luncheon, you can see Panoske is taking his senior year very seriously.

That’s nothing but good for the Panthers, who have had problems with Panoske playing too much like a wing in past years. If this newfound 250 lb. body is an indication that he is looking to be a beast down low, all the better. Tiby led the league in rebounding last season, but a Panoske with a full center’s body could mean we’ll own the paint with the two of them together on the floor. The possibilities are exciting.

J.J. Panoske has built up his body, which was the cause of most of his question marks.

J.J. Panoske has built up his body, which was the cause of most of his question marks.

I said earlier the team will go as far as Tiby will take them, but a newly powerful Panoske would mitigate the need for Tiby to load up the stat sheet. For one, Panoske might find himself as a rebounding force. He’s always had a nose for blocks, but a better-refined nose with the ability to body up could lead to a big increase in block numbers.

With the roster as currently built, I expect them to contend for a title. I think they’ve got the talent to push for the NCAA Tournament with or without winning the conference tournament. Obviously certain things need to work out and they’ll need to have the loose balls go their way just enough to win the games, but they can do it.

Throw in a big improvement from Panoske, whose biggest knocks are almost all tied to his lack of meat on his considerable frame, and the ceiling goes much, much higher. Think about it – his post moves with his back to the basket have always come too early, as if he just hasn’t gotten close enough to the basket to sink the hook shot. He has trouble rebounding because he’s gotten pushed around the lane. He tends to float too much to the outside because he’s been more comfortable away from the basket. He’s packed on the pounds, it’s obvious even if he’s not wearing a basketball uniform.

We’ve often been critical of J.J., and I’m sorry to say that I’ve been one of the people to do it repeatedly. But I’ve always had a feeling about this program, that some of the best players are the ones that frustrate me the most. Kaylon Williams, Jordan Aaron, Anthony Hill, Joah Tucker, even Demetrius Harris towards the end of his tenure – these are all guys who had cringe-worthy moments and turned out to be stars. Panoske could be there if he can capitalize on the new-found size. There’s nothing I love more than to be proven wrong after I’ve been critical of one of our guys. So here’s to hoping J.J. can shove all the comments we’ve made in the past back in our faces.

Scotty Tyler: It’s just so hard to get a read on him. When I have seen him in practice, he’s been winded easily. He doesn’t look like he spends much time in the weight room. The problem is, I haven’t seen much of him – maybe two practices since he’s gotten into the program.

We know he can play. That stat line against Cal State Bakersfield in one game as a freshman shows potential – 21 minutes, eight points, five rebounds, two assists – but whether or not he can play at this level remains to be seen. He was sidelined last night, but whereas you could see Panoske got bigger, you could just as easily see Tyler hadn’t.

Something to keep in mind: this is based on very limited time seeing him play. I just don’t know what we can expect out of Scotty Tyler in a year where the biggest question is frontcourt depth.

The Panthers hopefully won't miss Steve McWhorter too much, since Jordan Johnson looks like the real deal at point guard.

The Panthers hopefully won’t miss Steve McWhorter too much, since Jordan Johnson looks like the real deal at point guard.

Jeremy Johnson: The first time I heard about Jeremy Johnson, I was told about how he was a great athlete with the potential to create great mismatches. I was also told he’d be a prime candidate for a redshirt. Coming into the scrimmage on one of those sweet knee-scooter-dealies all but cemented that in my eyes.

That’s good, because he looks like most freshman do – too lean to play D-I ball yet. Getting up to Division I speed is also a challenge best met by redshirting when you’re not going to see much of the floor.

Looking over all these guys, there’s a real solid group that is pretty much locked in the rotation. Springs, McCloud, Jordan Johnson, Tiby, Panoske and Arians are sure-fire locks for the rotation. Wichmann, Lyle and Justin Jordan are almost sure to be in there. Brett Prahl will likely see at least twelve minutes a game, and that number goes up if he has progressed more than last night showed.

At this point, what’s most important is that the Panthers figure out how to play as a team. Individual skills are important, and some guys will need to work on them this season, but at this point it’s all about meshing together and putting forth maximum effort.

The good news is that this program looks to have enough talent to do real damage in the Horizon League, but time’s running out. After all, it’s only four months until the postseason.

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The original post was missing a portion on sophomore Justin Jordan, cut out of an early revision. That section is back in.

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