Team preview: Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 20, 2004, 5:40 PM ET
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Editor's Note: Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, long known as the Bible of college basketball, to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams.

COACH AND PROGRAM

Sixty wins in three years. Do the math and that means Bruce Pearl's tenure at Wisconsin-Milwaukee is clicking along at one of those magic numbers in college basketball -- 20 wins a year.

The Panthers won the Horizon League regular season last winter with their second consecutive 13-3 league campaign. They barely missed the daily double, losing the conference tournament in Milwaukee against Illinois-Chicago, 65-62, when Ed McCants' three-point shot to force overtime kicked off the rim.

As much as Pearl would like to have won that game and gone to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament, he has no beef with McCants or his team. McCants, a junior-college transfer, was the Horizon Newcomer of the Year -- a complement to league player of the year Dylan Page -- and the Panthers still had a championship season despite losing a posse of veterans from the previous year.

"It was really a rewarding season,'' Pearl said. "Everybody tells you that winning the regular-season championship is so difficult. We went 13-3 and had a legitimate shot at 15-1, and that was extremely satisfying.

"We know how tough our league is, and I think always a fair benchmark of how your program is fairing is how do you compete against your league?''

Pearl wasn't exaggerating about how close the Panthers came to 15-1. Of their three league losses, one was 86-82 at Illinois-Chicago, another 85-84 at Youngstown. The Panthers had close calls in three other non-league road games at tough gyms: 77-71 at North Carolina State; 81-77 at Southern Illinois; 66-64 at Santa Clara. The season ended on a 73-70 second-round NIT loss at Boise State after Milwaukee had routed Rice 91-63.

It's obvious from the non-conference schedule that Pearl has high aspirations for his program. This year's non-conference lineup includes trips to Kansas, Wisconsin, Purdue, Saint Louis and Valparaiso.

"We have seven non-conference road games, and all seven are against teams that were in postseason last year,'' Pearl said. "We're trying to make that transition to be considered one of the top mid-major programs in the country. One way of doing it is consistently playing for your championship, and we've finished first or second all three years we've been at Milwaukee. The other way you do it is with scheduling.''

Count on the Panthers to be in the hunt for another Horizon regular-season title this season. True, Milwaukee must replace Page and his 20.9 points a game, but four starters return, and the bench is deep with candidates vying for playing time.

Replacing Page should not be discounted. He was a big man who could score inside and step out beyond the three-point arc and score. He also averaged 6.6 boards and never hesitated to take the clutch shot. Consistency was also one of Page's hallmarks. He rarely had a bad game. How do the Panthers turn the, uh, page without losing their place?

"I think everybody picks it up a little, and we'll have better balance,'' Pearl said. "We may not be as big, but therefore we'll be a little quicker. We may get back to pressing a little more. Last year was the first year we didn't press 94 feet for 40 minutes, but our personnel just wasn't suited to do that.''

PLAYERS

The Panthers are not without offensive options. McCants, a 6-3 senior shooting guard, averaged 17.1 points and played 31 minutes a game. Junior Joah Tucker (12.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is a 6-5 load at small forward who creates mismatches with his strength and bulk.

"Really, we were a three-headed monster last year with Tucker, Page and McCants,'' Pearl said. "Now we're looking for that third guy.''

McCants and Tucker both began their careers elsewhere. McCants started off at Northwestern, then took a junior college detour to Milwaukee. He can shoot from anywhere on the court.

"He's got an NBA future,'' Pearl said, "because he's as good a shooter as anybody in the country, and he's worked hard at the other aspects of his game. We may combo him and let him play some point.''

McCants has the long-range touch and can finish. The area he could improve on is getting from point A to point B -- putting the ball on the floor to get into the teeth of the defense.

Tucker began his career at Bradley, then red-shirted after transferring to Milwaukee. Last season, he saw his first meaningful minutes (27.6 mpg) since high school. He needs to follow Page's example of being consistent night in, night out to elevate his game.

"He's a beast physically at the three,'' Pearl said. "He's a nightmare match-up.''

Adrian Tigart (6.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) is another returning starter at center. The 6-7 Tigart, a junior, is still regaining his All-Newcomer team form from his freshman year (2001-02) before knee surgery and a slow recovery put him on the shelf. The fact that he got to spend the past off-season working on his game instead of rehab should translate into increased scoring and rebounding numbers. Tigart somehow managed to lead the team in assists (110), which indicates a pass-first mentality that could change now that Page is gone.

Tigart doesn't have a strong array of back-to-the basket post moves and, in fact, may face up for a few more shots, a la Page.

The Panthers aren't lacking for candidates to jump into Page's vacancy in the frontcourt. Derrick Ford and Jason McCoy are newcomers who will battle with veterans Rob Sanders and James Wright.

Ford is a 6-10, 235-pound junior-college addition, highly regarded as a shot blocker and rebounder. He averaged only 5.6 points last year at Olney Central Community College, but has the upside to respond if Milwaukee asks more of him offensively. The junior is the most likely candidate to take Page's starting spot and could be a long, tall weapon at the front or the back of the Panthers' press.

McCoy, a 6-9 junior, sat out last year after transferring from Rutgers. He averaged two points and a rebound in seven minutes a game for the Scarlet Knights in 2002-03.

Sanders (1.5 ppg, 1.3 rpg), a 6-6 senior has battled a shoulder injury and played only 6.9 minutes last year. He has shown flashes of being ready to contribute, and his senior year would be a good time to follow through.

A broken leg devastated Wright's career in December, 2001, and he's never been able to play at the same level that made him a blue-chip recruit who first signed with Oklahoma. The 6-6 senior's numbers last year (0.5 ppg, 0.6 rpg) don't come close to suggesting the contribution he might have made if healthy.

Chris Hill (7.3 ppg), a 5-10 junior, returns as the starting point guard, a position he assumed late in the season. Hill, coming off a red-shirt season, shared the point with Kalombo Kadima, who has since graduated. Hill has been in the program three years and proved he can get to the basket. What he needs to do to take his game up a notch is hit a few more three-pointers (he was 17-of-72 last year).

Pearl has several options in the backcourt to complement McCants and Hill. Mark Pancratz (2.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg) is a 6-3 junior who refuses to slip out of the rotation. He's a hard worker and does the proverbial little things. Ronald "Boo" Davis, a 6-3 junior, red-shirted last year after transferring from Olney Central. The 6-3 Davis combines athleticism and consistent three-point shooting range. He could play in a three-guard rotation with Hill and McCants.

Derrick Wimmer is a 6-3 sophomore who also red-shirted last year after transferring from Chicago State. Wimmer, a Milwaukee product, changed programs because he wanted to be closer to home, not because he wasn't getting the minutes. He averaged 10.0 points and had 20 starts as a freshman at Chicago State. Like McCants and Davis, Wimmer is a shooter.

Allan Hanson is a 6-0 freshman point guard, and the coaching staff is excited about him. He originally signed with Akron but had a change or heart and decided to stick close to his roots at Wauwatosa East High School. He is considered the highest-profile hometown recruit of the Pearl era. Hanson is probably the point guard of the future, and it wouldn't be a shock to see him red-shirted if he won't get enough minutes to justify burning a year of eligibility.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: A-
BENCH/DEPTH: B+
FRONTCOURT: B-
INTANGIBLES: B

By now, the Panthers are getting used to winning.

Pearl's aggressive style of play has been influential in attracting second-chance players who started in other programs, then come to Milwaukee and make significant contributions. That trend should continue this year. No doubt, the Panthers will miss last year's Horizon League Player of the Year, the versatile big man Page. However, four returning starters could take up the slack in firepower, particularly guard McCants (a candidate for player of the year) and forward Tucker.

Milwaukee will probably be quicker and better suited to turning up the defensive pressure to the level Pearl prefers.

The Panthers have the horses to be right there in the hunt for another league championship, especially if junior college transfer Ford gets up to speed quickly in the paint.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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