Milwaukee must bring the pressure

After every week of Horizon League play, I try to look at all major stat categories to see how the Panthers stack up. Still bothered by weeks of matador defense, as shown on the important recent road trip where Milwaukee held just two of five opponents under 45% shooting and went 1-4, I scoured statistical databases for additional numbers that might shed light on the poor play that is becoming frequent as the season wears on. A few numbers jumped out at me immediately. First, the Panthers average only four steals per game. This number puts them dead last in the Horizon League and 346th out of 351 division one schools in the country. Going a step further, Milwaukee ranks 329th in total turnovers forced, averaging around ten per game. This means that not only do the Panthers not get steals, they also seldomly create turnovers in other ways, such as taking charges, producing shot clock violations, or forcing dribble pickups that can lead to travels.

This inability to force turnovers has far reaching implications. Lack of defensive pressure almost always leads to higher quality opponent shots. When there is little to no threat of strong ball pressure, offenses don’t feel the need to rush shot attempts in an effort to avoid turning the ball over. When teams can comfortably run offensive sets with open passing lanes, high percentage shots are frequently a result. This is evident in Milwaukee’s opponent field goal percentage, which is over 46%.

Weak defensive pressure has been leading to poor defense for the Panthers, but it’s also meant fewer opportunities on the offensive end. Teams that are effective at forcing turnovers, usually have significantly more offensive possessions than teams that are not effective at forcing turnovers. An extreme example of this is Milwaukee’s rival, Green Bay.  UWGB ranks ninth in the country forcing over 16 turnovers per game. This helps them rank fourth in the country at 81 possessions per game. The Panthers average only 70, putting them at 240th in the nation. Playing at a frenetic pace like the Phoenix of Green Bay is of course also a big reason why they average over 80 possessions per game, but the bottom line is that if a team pressures the ball and forces turnovers (UWGB’s defense produces over 16 per game) they will have more offensive opportunities than teams that have an inability to create pressure.

Forcing a low amount of turnovers also puts tremendous stress on the Panthers offense to protect the ball. Essentially, if a team isn’t turning over their opponent, they cannot afford to be turned over themselves. Thankfully, Milwaukee is very good at protecting the ball, as they only give it away 11.2 times per game, a mark that is top 45 in the country (and also better than the notoriously fundamental Wisconsin Badgers). Despite this strong ranking, the Panthers still have a negative turnover margin because of their lack of defensive pressure. Since Milwaukee only forces around ten turnovers a game, they have a turnover margin of roughly minus one. This means that opponents, on average, get one more possession per game than Milwaukee. This may not seem like a big number, but when you consider that the Panthers have SEVEN losses in games decided by one possession or in overtime, this turnover deficit is extremely significant. It is by no means a stretch to say that if Milwaukee had a positive turnover margin, their record would be significantly better.

Losing a possession on average to your opponent per game is even more frustrating if you are an efficient offensive team, which the Panthers are. They score 1.1 points per shot attempt, one of the better totals nationally. Unfortunately, on the defensive end, they give up around the same point per possession. Milwaukee getting, on average, one less possession per game than their opponents is essentially creating a two point swing; minus one point for the lost Milwaukee possession, and plus one point for their opponent getting an extra possession. With four losses by two points or fewer, this is a hard concept to swallow.

The bottom line is that the Panthers need to find a way to generate defensive pressure and create turnovers over the final games of the regular season. For a team that plays in so many close games, and gets so much out of each offensive set, Milwaukee simply cannot continue to allow their opponents to have the ball more than them. When you are both an efficient offensive team and an abysmal defensive team, one extra possession for your opponent can literally cost you a game. Any hope for making a run in the Horizon League tournament will rely on Milwaukee being able to put pressure on opposing offenses and, in turn, take pressure off of themselves.

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