First half struggles should prompt Milwaukee to pound the paint

A recent theme of this season has been the Panthers inability to get off to good starts in games.  Against South Dakota, the Panthers faced a 39-28 deficit at half.  Against Wright State, they trailed 41-28 at half, and against Northern Kentucky they faced a ten-point deficit after only scoring four points nearly seven minutes into the game.

Luckily, Milwaukee had enough talent and heart to come back and make all of these games competitive, two resulting in overtime losses, and the Northern Kentucky game ending with a victory.  Regardless of outcome, however, the tendency the Panthers have shown recently to start slow is troubling.

A lot of the sluggish first halves seem to come from Milwaukee’s willingness to settle for outside shots.  Let’s take a closer look at this.

Milwaukee currently ranks 244 out of 351 division 1 teams in first half scoring margin at -3.2.  While this number on the surface doesn’t seem like a large deficit, bear in mind that the number is largely skewed by blowout victories such as the ones against Judson (led 66-38 at half), and Trinity International (led 41-26 at half) among others.

Conversely, for second half scoring margin the Panthers rank an extremely solid 26th in the country at +7.2 points. As mentioned above, the resilience Milwaukee shows in the second half is both impressive and encouraging, as proven by their second half scoring margin, but they cannot continue to dig themselves in holes early in games.

Against South Dakota, Milwaukee held a one-point lead with 12 minutes left in the half, from that point forward they were outscored 24 to 12 the rest of the half, resulting in an 11 point halftime deficit.  During this stretch, the Panthers attempted 11 three pointers and only converted two of them.   Against Wright State, Milwaukee jumped out to a 12-7 lead with about 14 and half minutes left in the half.  Over the final fourteen minutes of the half, Wright State outscored Milwaukee 34 to 16 to build a 13 point halftime lead. During this dominate Wright State stretch, the Panthers went 2-for-8 from deep. Finally, against Northern Kentucky the Panthers started the game on a five-minute scoring drought.  During this drought, Milwaukee was 0-3 from three-point range.  

First half struggles corresponding with repetitive three point shots and misses is not coincidental.  The fact of the matter is that the Panthers are taking a lot of three pointers, and not necessarily making them at a high rate.  Their roster is definitely full of more than capable outside shooters, as every player in Coach Jeter’s typical rotation can extend their range beyond the arc, but what makes Milwaukee unique is that they also have one of the bigger teams in the Horizon League.

There will be few, if any, occasions this year where Milwaukee will be undersized. Because of this, it will become a necessity to strive for at least one paint touch per offensive possession.  Right now the Panthers are only taking 52% of their shots from two point range, even less of this percentage coming in the paint.  This percentage puts them at 332 nationally, or almost the lowest in the entire country.  Naturally, this means that almost 50% of the time, they are settling for three point attempts.  For a team that shoots only 34.3 percent from deep (156th nationally), this is an alarmingly high three-point rate.

Perhaps the most glaring problem, however, with Milwaukee’s willingness to settle for long distance shots, is that the Panthers are a very good free throw shooting team.  Currently, they rank 10th nationally, shooting almost 77% from the line.  With athletic guards such as JayQuan McCloud, J.R. Lyle, Akeem Springs, and the lane penetration wizard that is Jordan Johnson, the Panthers should strive to get into the lane, force post touches, and pressure opposing defenses into fouling.

They have shown their ability to do this at certain times this season, as they have eclipsed 30 free throw attempts several times already, but a more consistent effort needs to be made to throw the ball into the paint and draw fouls.  The Panthers also have the luxury of having two incredibly skilled big men.  Panoske has improved his post game in every year he has been with the program, and Tiby has consistently shown an array of post moves when given adequate post touches.  Tiby is also skilled at drawing fouls, as he has already had three games this year in which he has attempted, and made, double digit free throws.  Because of this, increasing post touches is a solid recipe to build and maintain leads in the first half of games, as well as finish games out strong when playing with the lead in the second half.     

The coaching staff has proven their ability to make adjustments at halftime so far this year, which has resulted in second halves that have featured stronger play, increased post touches, and high amounts of free throws attempted.  As we move into the heart of Horizon League play, look for Milwaukee to begin to cut back on three-point attempts, especially to begin games, and shake off their troubling early season tendency to start slow.   

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