'We never gave up': Beyond the 22 wins, UWM's competitiveness was signature of resurgent season under Bart Lundy
The question, posed to Bart Lundy last fall, was a simple one.
What are your expectations?
“None,” Lundy said as he entered his first season on the sideline as UW-Milwaukee men’s basketball coach. “We don’t really talk that way. It’s coach speak, but we talk about doing today right, and stacking good days.”
And stack good days the Panthers did in 2022-2023, obliterating whatever measures of success those outside the program might have had for a program that had logged only two winning seasons in the prior decade and none since 2015-2016.
Check out the team’s list of achievements – all with only four returnees from 2021-2022 and 13 newcomers:
20 victories for just the 11th time in the program’s Division I era;
22 victories, most since 2005-2006 (22-9);
14-6 record and second-place finish in the Horizon League (best since 2010-2011). The Panthers were predicted to finish ninth in the conference’s preseason poll;
15 home victories, tied for most in program history;
First postseason tournament appearance in nine years;
First postseason victory in 17 years.
Then there were the individual achievements:
Lundy’s 22 victories were tied for the most by a coach in his first year in the program (Rob Jeter in 2005-2006);
BJ Freeman’s 18.2 points-per-game average was the highest since Dylan Page’s 20.9 in 2003-2004;
Freeman’s 43-point outburst against Stetson in the College Basketball Invitation was the program’s second-highest, single-game performance in the Division I era;
Freeman’s 14 20-plus-point scoring games were most since 1994-1995 (Shannon Smith had 19);
Freeman’s three games scoring 30 or more points were most since 2006-2007 (Avery Smith had three);
Ahmad Rand’s 72 blocked shots set a program record (JJ Panoske blocked 54 in 2015-2016);
Freeman was named second team all-Horizon League, Rand was named defensive player of the year (first in program history) and Elijah Jamison named to the all-freshman team.
Several days removed from his team’s season-ending loss to Charlotte in the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational, Lundy was again asked about expectations – and whether he now believed his Panthers had ultimately blown past them.
“I think we exceeded external expectations,” Lundy said. “I think we probably came up a little short with our internal expectations. And I say that because we were a game away from winning the (Horizon League). We lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament and then didn’t win the CBI.
“I think getting to those points and not winning any of those three probably left a sour taste not only for the coaching staff but also the players.”
UWM opened the season by losing its first three games against Division I opponents, although it must be noted the first two were on the road to eventual No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed Purdue and another NCAA Tournament team in Iowa State.
The Panthers rattled off five straight victories after that, including sweeping the Cream City Classic at the Klotsche Center shortly after Thanksgiving. Justin Thomas’s 25-foot three at the buzzer to beat UC-Davis in the opener was one of the team’s season highlights.
UWM didn’t have many down moments the rest of the way – an overtime loss at home to a terrible UW-Green Bay team was probably the low point – and to its credit the team lost consecutive games only twice all season and never lost three in a row.
“If we don’t lose to Green Bay at home we win the regular season and we go to the NIT,” said Lundy. “I think that left a little something to be desired for the season.”
The challenge early on for Lundy was trying to integrate all the new players while at the same time installing his offensive and defensive systems.
At their best, the Panthers were entertaining to watch as they ran the floor, attacked the rim, shot threes, rebounded well and harassed opponents with the press.
But there was one area in particular where Lundy was most pleased.
“What I liked most was we were always competitive,” Lundy said. “There was an attitude that we never gave up. We didn’t always play well, but we always came at you. As a coach, that’s maybe one of the things when you look around college basketball that’s missing. Guys give up too easily.
“We had no give. We didn’t play well against Charlotte, but we kept coming and gave ourselves a chance. There were so many games where it wasn’t pretty and guys were trying to figure things out. But we kept playing, and that’s probably what I’m most proud of with those guys.
“We’ll get better offensively, we’ll get better defensively as it goes on. But (the competitiveness) is the aspect we want to keep from this year.”
The biggest negative? Probably the lack of ball security, as the Panthers turned the ball over an average of 15 times a game with a single-game high of 27 at Iowa State.
Jordan Ratliffe, a graduate transfer from Division II UNC-Pembroke, suffered a torn ACL in the fall and missed the season, and UWM’s top two assist men were Thomas (three per game) and Freeman (2.9), neither of them primary ballhandlers in a perfect world.
“To win 22 games with Elijah, who’s a true freshman, and Justin Thomas, who played everywhere from the 1 to the 4 for us, carrying the load at the point-guard spot, it’s pretty remarkable,” Lundy said.
By the end of the season a total of 12 players had seen action in the majority of games, with Markeith Browning II and Moses Bol the only returnees to play any sort of substantial role (and Bol didn’t begin seeing regular minutes until well into the season).
The 6-foot-6 Freeman, a sophomore junior-college transfer, was a revelation as he led the Panthers in scoring, rebounding (tied with Browning at 5.1 per game) and three-pointers (74).
“Some of the games that he had – the 43-point game, the triple-double – those just don’t happen for a guy that’s really not played at this level,” said Lundy. “Offensively, he’s really gifted. Really gifted. Part of it was necessity – we needed him to do a lot for us. Most nights he was there and gave us what we needed to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Freeman gave UWM a big boost on Monday as well when he announced his intention to remain with the Panthers moving forward rather than enter the transfer portal and head to a Power 5 school.
Beyond Freeman, UWM has a solid core of contributors such as sophomore guard Kentrell Pullian (second on the team in scoring and three-pointers), Browning, Thomas, and Jamison as a foundation.
Departing are Rand, Bol and Vin Baker Jr., who have played out their eligibility, and forward Vincent Miszkiewicz and guard Brian Taylor II, who entered the transfer portal.
To see one or more other players leave in an attempt to find more playing time or a better fit elsewhere wouldn't be surprising, either, which is part and parcel in college basketball these days.
As far as incoming players, 6-6 guard Makuei Riek and 6-8 forward Darius Duffy have already signed for 2023-24, 6-9 forward Thomas Diew out of Minnesota will walk on and 6-7 wing Learic Davis will transfer in as UWM should remain rangy, athletic and deep.
Then there's the off-the-court development that continues.
Maybe as important as what UWM achieved between the lines was the fact Lundy helped return the Panthers to relevance both in the Horizon League as well as in the city of Milwaukee – no small feat considering how far they had fallen in recent years.
“I think that’s probably the thing I’m most proud of this year, other than our guys,” said Lundy. “I’m really happy we were able to energize the city, because that was part of the reason that I made the move – there was a good chance we could do this and re-energize the city, resurrect the program, make the university proud of the guys that we bring in and how we play.
“To see it happen that quickly, having moved my family here, it made me think this was the right move. This was the right thing to do. I couldn’t be happier with the university, Amanda (Braun, UWM’s athletic director), the community, the fans, our alumni – they’ve all been so supportive.
“It’s been a point of pride for me.”
And Lundy said the feeling carried over to his players as well.
“When you talk about guys like BJ, you can say, ‘He likes the coaches,’ but he likes the city of Milwaukee,” Lundy said. “He likes the fans. He likes what’s happened with the media. And he sees value in that.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: UWM basketball's competitiveness stood out in Bart Lundy's first year