Different rebuilds but similar challenges for UWM, Wisconsin men’s basketball teams

The UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison men’s basketball teams both ended their seasons in defeat.

These losses occurred within a few blocks of each other. The Panthers fell to the University of Illinois at Chicago in a first round game of the Horizon League Tournament at Panther Arena. A few weeks later, the Badgers – playing a bona fide home game at the Fiserv Forum – were defeated by Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The two programs take divergent paths, but both enter the offseason facing significant turnover. Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis and UWM’s Patrick Baldwin Jr. are each expected to be first-round picks in the 2022 NBA draft.

Wisconsin will also be without graduate Brad Davison, while UWM faces the graduation of team leader Josh Thomas as well as the departure of four key players from the transfer gate. Panthers leading scorer DeAndre Gholston, along with starting guard Jordan Lathon, big man Joey St Pierre and Senegalese center Samba Kane are all looking to end their college careers elsewhere.

On the sidelines, Milwaukee head coach Patrick Baldwin received his pink slip less than 24 hours after his team’s early exit from the conference tournament – the result of five lost seasons and a 57-92 record at the bar.

After disappointing playoffs and rocky offseasons, how will Wisconsin and UWM handle their respective rebuilds and be able to bounce back in the 2022/23 campaign?

Another rebuild for Milwaukee

It seems like a long time ago, but in the early 2000s, UWM boasted one of the best mid-major basketball programs in the country. Bruce Pearl and then Rob Jeter led the Panthers to three NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Sweet 16 berth in 2004/05.

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Over the next decade, UWM appeared in the tournament once (2013/14), losing to double-seeded Villanova in the first round. The Panthers were not outdone during this streak. They had only three losing seasons in Horizon League play and maintained an overall record above .500. Still, the presence of the conference behemoth Butler prevented any excursion in March.

In 2015/16, UWM finished 20-13 (10-8 in HL play), falling in the conference tournament quarterfinals. The UWM administration had seen enough; after 11 solid seasons, head coach Rob Jeter was fired.

Successor LaVall Jordan lasted a season, guiding the Panthers to a final berth and then leaving to take the helm from Butler.

Enter Pat Baldwin, a longtime assistant with Northwestern. “Our main focus and goal is to compete and win championships,” Baldwin said after signing a five-year contract with the Panthers in 2017.

His tenure has been marked by mediocrity but, more worryingly, has been defined by an inability to maintain roster stability. While recent changes to transfer rules have hampered the ability of mid-majors to retain their best players, Baldwin has struggled to establish the continuity needed for success.

Milwaukee’s top three scorers from 17/18 traded after the season, including all-conference winner Jeremiah Bell. Baldwin continued to attract talent, but players left just as quickly.

Illinois transfer Te’Jon Lucas made the All-Horizon League team twice before moving to BYU in 2021. This offseason, UWM lost DeAndre Gholston – a 15.3 scorer PPG during his two seasons as the Panther – at Missouri and Patrick Baldwin Jr., the former coach’s son, who will likely turn pro.

Baldwin Jr., Sussex’s oft-injured five-star rookie, missed 20 games in his first season, and flashes of promise – including 20 points on 6-6 three-pointers in a win over Robert Morris – were far too infrequent as the team finished 10-22 overall.

Baldwin Jr.’s commitment to Milwaukee was a revelation given his top-flight status, but he will go down as another talented player to leave UWM without a postseason appearance.

New start

The Panthers are hoping for a fresh start under new coach Bart Lundy, who took over the team on March 19.

Lundy offers a diverse resume. The 50-year-old has two stints (totaling 14 years) as head coach at Queens University in Charlotte, NC, including a pair of Final Fours; six years as a coach at tiny High Point University (also in North Carolina), where he led the Panthers to their first winning season as a D1 program and an overall record above .500. Lundy also spent three years as director of basketball operations at Marquette during the Buzz Williams years.

“I think you saw it with Bruce Pearl,” Lundy said during his introductory press conference. “I’m not saying I’m Bruce Pearl at all, but they went to a Sweet 16, and they know what it’s like and what it’s like. I think you can find guys who can be pros here. You have to have good players, so I don’t think there’s been a ceiling that’s been hit in a while.

Attracting talent to Milwaukee has never been the issue, the challenge for Lundy now is whether he can build a lasting winning program.

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Wisconsin replaces a superstar

On March 31, Johnny Davis made official what most Badger fans had been waiting for months: he was giving up his college eligibility and entering the NBA draft.

According to ESPN’s latest NBA mock draft, Johnny Davis is expected to be the seventh overall pick. It would be the second highest draft berth for a UW player behind only Devin Harris, who was the fifth pick in 2004.

Davis has averaged 19.7 PPG and 8.2 RPG this season en route to Big Ten Player of the Year and National Player of the Year honors Lute Olson.

Add the departure of super-senior/team leader/second top scorer Brad Davison, as well as the loss of reserve big men Chris Vogt (graduate) and Ben Carlson (transferred), and coach Greg Gard seeks his own rebuild. .

Unless Tyler Wahl becomes a more consistent punch or Chucky Hepburn makes another big move as a sophomore, it’s increasingly likely that UW will be without a go-to scorer next season.

Unlike their Horizon League neighbors to the east, Wisconsin rarely provides transfers, opting instead to develop their recruited talent. Gard signed a pair of transfers after the 2020/21 campaign, but Micah Potter is the only high-impact transfer in recent memory.

While the transfer portal has hurt UW-Milwaukee, a top school like Wisconsin can take advantage of the saturated college talent market.

Among the biggest names available is Illinois State star Antonio Reeves, an all-conference second-team winner in the Missouri Valley who averaged 20.1 PPG. At 6-6, Reeves offers comparable size to Johnny Davis and despite being a weaker defender, Reeves put in better shot numbers from all areas on the floor.

Another possibility is the transfer of Wright State Grant Basile, a 6-9 Pewaukee native who can deliver the inside punch (18.4 PPG, 8.5 RPG) that Wisconsin has lacked so much this year. Basil and Reeves both have one more season of eligibility and the choice to play another using their COVID years.

Wisconsin’s overreliance on Johnny Davis was evident in March—Davis took a third of the Badgers’ field goals, and when he struggled, the UW offense followed suit. There was no plan B, no secondary goalscorer to relieve La Crosse’s star winger.

Instead of mustering a great goalscorer, perhaps the Gard coach’s best course of action is to build a more balanced attacking attack.

The Badgers’ last second weekend in the NCAA Tournament was an appearance at the Sweet 16 in 2017. That team had three go-to scorers: Bronson Koenig in the backcourt, Nigel Hayes on the wing and Ethan Happ in the paint. The 16/17 team also had three regulars who shot 39% or better from three.

This year’s team lacked that harmony. Davis and Davison, though high-volume scorers, were largely ineffective (combined 40.8% from the field). Big man Tyler Wahl arrived late in the season but didn’t offer a consistent threat.

The most damning offensive stats, however, were three-point percentage and assist rate: the Badgers ranking 300th or worse among D1 programs in both categories (out of 358 schools). These are not issues that will be fixed by bringing in a high volume goalscorer from the transfer portal.

Thanks to the emergence of Johnny Davis, a rebuilding Wisconsin team that was expected to finish 10th in the Big Ten preseason poll won a share of the regular season Big Ten title. The Badgers again face a revamped roster, and the decisions Greg Gard makes in the coming months will affect the program for years to come.

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