Newcomers will be the key to the season
Coming off of a nine-win season and 10th place Horizon League finish that saw Milwaukee become one of two teams to be left out of the league tournament under last year’s new format, the Panthers are hoping for a dramatic improvement this year with the help of several promising newcomers.
Unlike recent tumultuous offseasons, Milwaukee had a relatively quiet summer in 2019. Guard Bryce Barnes announced he’d be playing his senior season at William & Mary, but otherwise the Panthers’ only departures in the rotation were graduating seniors Vance Johnson and Jake Wright.
On paper Wright’s replacement in the starting lineup — Illinois transfer Te’Jon Lucas — should provide not just an upgrade to his spot in the lineup, but should allow leading scorer Darius Roy to play off-ball more often and improve the cohesiveness of the lineup as a whole. Wright’s role with Milwaukee was primarily to catch-and-shoot, while Lucas figures to take pressure off of Roy to distribute by taking over as the primary ball handler this year.
Johnson’s replacement is less clear. Milwaukee landed another Power Conference transfer in former USC forward Harrison Henderson, but Henderson wasn’t a contributor at his last stop like Te’Jon Lucas was. As a result, it’s difficult to say what kind of impact he’ll have at Milwaukee.
Henderson will be battling with Will Sessoms and Amir Allen for minutes this year. Sessoms and Allen platooned in the front court next to Johnson last year, with Allen getting a slightly larger share of the playing time.
As previously mentioned, Milwaukee’s highest profile newcomer is Illinois transfer point guard Te’Jon Lucas. Lucas, a former Top 150 recruit and Milwaukee native averaged 5.7 points and 3.2 assists per game with the Illini in 2018. His 1.68:1 assist-to-turnover ratio as a sophomore at Illinois would have ranked first on the Panthers in 2019, and he was doing it against Big 10 competition. He also finished second on the team in steals while playing 20 minutes per game.
Looking back to the last point guard transfer Milwaukee got after a season where a combo guard was running point, Lucas compares very favorably to Steve McWhorter. Given the role that the Indiana State transfer McWhorter played in the Panthers’ 2014 and 2015 seasons, that’s exciting news for Milwaukee. With McWhorter as its primary ball handler, Milwaukee went from eight wins in 2013 to 21 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014. Lucas figures to be the Panthers’ best — and most important — player this season, and a more apt comparison for the type of impact he can have may be former Green Bay star Sandy Cohen III. If Milwaukee wants to have a turnaround like the 2014 team saw, they’ll need their only true point guard to deliver. Fortunately, it seems like he’s more than capable.
Harrison Henderson joins Milwaukee as a transfer from USC with two years of eligibility remaining. Henderson — a former composite 3-star forward — figures to compete with Amir Allen and Will Sessoms for front court minutes this season. It’s difficult to gage how Henderson will translate after his transfer as he spent his two years at USC on the end of the bench, but with the Panthers returning just two scholarship post players there will be an abundance of minutes available.
Shae Mitchell committed to Milwaukee with a profile not often seen in a recruit from a struggling mid-major. Mitchell was a composite 3-star recruit, but measured 6-foot-6 and just 170 pounds as a freshman. He opted to redshirt to bulk up, and comes into his redshirt freshman year listed at 205 pounds. If Mitchell added the weight while maintaining the abilities that caused scouts to rate him a 3-star, he could be an instant impact addition to the Panthers at forward with an incredibly bright future.
Josh Thomas joins Milwaukee after leading Wabash Valley College in scoring and helping the team to an NJCAA Top 25 ranking. Thomas was a First Team All-Conference in the Great Rivers Athletic Conference after averaging 15.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game as a sophomore. While the Panthers may not have a spot for him in the lineup this year, he figures to be a big piece off the bench this year and a potential starter going forward.
Arturro Bingham comes to Milwaukee with fewer accolades than his fellow newcomers, and appears to be a bit more of a work in progress. The sophomore averaged 6.4 points and 3 rebounds per game as a freshman at Southwest Mississippi Community College.
Te’Jon Lucas – Lucas should be a shoo-in as the Panthers’ starting point guard this season. Expect him to be among the team’s leading scorers while also leading the team in assists and providing an athletic presence with good size on the perimeter. While transfers don’t always get the respect they deserve, history tells us that Lucas could be an All-League performer.
Darius Roy – Milwaukee’s leader in points and assists last season is another lock to start in 2019-20, and the votes he received for the HoriZone Roundtable All-League team solidify that. Roy’s assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.28 last year wasn’t bad, but sliding him to shooting guard and taking pressure to be a distributor for 35 minutes off of him could see similar benefits as when Jordan Aaron slid over in 2014.
DeAndre Abram – Another returning starter, Abram was Milwaukee’s second leading scorer and leading rebounder last season. While the hype that Shae Mitchell comes in with is impressive, if he just needed to add weight to knock Abram out of the lineup he likely would have played a big enough role to avoid a redshirt last year.
Amir Allen – Of the two returning post players, Amir Allen was the more impactful in 2019. Allen averaged 6.1 points and 4.3 rebounds in 16.6 minutes per game while hitting 55% of his shots from the field. This is another spot where Shae Mitchell could be a factor, as he finished his career as Lakeville South High School’s all-time leader in rebounds and blocks.
Harrison Henderson – While Henderson is still an unknown at this level, it would seem likely that he could beat out a player who garnered 12 minutes per game on a nine-win mid-major. Despite not having a lot of information on what Henderson can bring, it still seems that the talents that attracted a Pac 12 school to him should give him the edge for the final starting spot.
In the wake of a last-place Horizon League finish, it’s unsurprising that newcomers would figure heavily into the equation for Milwaukee this year. Led by a point guard who produced in the Big 10, the Panthers’ new crop should provide a noticeable boost to both the starting lineup and the bench depth this year.
Barring injuries, the front court will be where Milwaukee’s season outcome is determined. If the growth of Sessoms and Allen plus the addition of Harrison and Mitchell can make up for the loss of Vance Johnson, the improvements that the Panthers make in the backcourt and on the bench should lead to a much better season than 2019 saw.
Offseason developments three of the teams just ahead of Milwaukee in last year’s standings look like they could end up helping the Panthers this year. First, Detroit Mercy was ruled ineligible for the postseason due to its Academic Progress Rate falling below NCAA requirements. A year after finishing eighth place in the Horizon League, the Titans may not have much to play for if that ruling isn’t overturned.
Cleveland State fired head coach Dennis Felton — who was heading into his third season at the helm — after the Vikings suffered an apparent mutiny and lost 7 scholarship players to transfer. Last year’s ninth place finisher in the Horizon League seems likely to miss the league tournament for a second year in a row.
Finally, IUPUI started its offseason by losing Camron Justice as a graduate transfer, then had multiple projected backup guards leave and saw Head Coach Jason Gardner resign following an OWI arrest. Navigating a season with several new faces with just one experienced assistant will surely test the Jaguars.
With those situations in mind, there’s potential for Milwaukee to see a bump in its final league standings regardless of whether the team dramatically improves or not. Lucas and the other newcomers should provide a significant boost, but how much improvement the Panthers make this season will largely depend on the unproven Harrison and Milwaukee’s returning front court players.
If the Panthers finish closer to the top of the league, look for Lucas and Roy to be candidates for all-league selections.
Prediction: Eighth place
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