If Thursday night was any indicator, or a microcosm of a larger trend, former University of Wisconsin assistant Rob Jeter is going to be just fine as head coach at UW-Milwaukee. The visiting Panthers could have easily packed their bags early and folded up shop at the Kohl Center. Rather, UWM fought and made Wisconsin earn every bit of a 74-68 win.
After a technical foul by their leading scorer, Joah Tucker, the Panthers trailed by 20 points with 5:40 remaining in the first half. Tucker had just collected both his third and fourth fouls on an offensive charge and subsequent technical. Nothing seemed to be going right for Milwaukee, including — based on Jeter's courtside reactions — the officiating.
Yet, despite Wisconsin's hot hands and Jeter's obvious frustrations, when Tucker came to sit down for the remainder of the half, the rookie head coach contrasted from his fiery approach to look more the part of calm veteran. Jeter crouched beside Tucker and the two spoke for a moment.
His team responded as calm veterans on the floor. They did not panic, and the tide abruptly turned. Milwaukee reeled off 13 straight points to cut the lead to 37-30 at the break.
Rejuvenated, the run continued after halftime as the Panthers outscored Wisconsin, 15-4, making the nearly 14-minute run into a 24-point swing. From there on out the game remained close, and although the Panthers' foul trouble gave Wisconsin a leg up down the stretch, Jeter's team hung tough.
"He wasn't going to let them fold," Ryan said. "He wasn't going to let them back up at all."
The second turning point, it could be argued, came after another technical foul with 8:20 remaining in the game. Jeter got a word in with the officials, who quickly responded by assigning a foul to the bench. Wisconsin never surrendered the lead after that but again Jeter's team fought back to within two.
"There was a few things that I thought from my perspective, from where I'm standing, things appeared to be different," Jeter said. "I'm sure the three officials that were out there were calling the game as they saw it. As a coach, we just have to coach our guys and as players we just have to play the game."
Later in his postgame press conference, Jeter lit up the room when he joked about the one complaint from his bench that the officials were willing to hear, concerning a mistake in awarding free throw attempts to Kammron Taylor late in the game, when Michael Flowers was supposed to be at the line.
"I pointed out a few things to the guys but they just didn't listen to them," Jeter laughed. "I (didn't) think they were going to listen to that one either."
In the end, 29 personal fouls were called on Milwaukee to just 15 on Wisconsin. The Badgers made twice as many free throw shots, which in an environment like the Kohl Center is extremely difficult to overcome. Jeter certainly did not hide his feelings on any of the calls, raising his arms in protests, marching up and down the sidelines — fists pumping and feet thumping. On occasion he even needed a bear hug from an assistant coach to calm him down.
But that is the way Jeter has always been. Ryan believes Jeter to be one of the most competitive men he has been around in the game. Put simply, most people do not like to lose, but Jeter seems to despise it.
Yet, there is a line between passion and losing one's cool. Jeter did not cross that line on Thursday. In a game in which Milwaukee fans were thinking the game officials should be locked up and forced to don a different set of pinstripes, Jeter shrugged off his discontent and returned to earth, keeping his team composed enough to hang with the Badgers all night.
Afterwards, fresh off the biggest game of his young head-coaching career, Jeter had plenty of chances to revisit those calls. He chose to stay above it, to remain upbeat and even crack some smiles. In somewhat of a homecoming, he could have dwelled on the big fish that got away. He chose to compliment his players' perseverance and their progression in his system.
"I'm proud of my guys, down 20 or whatever it was," Jeter said. "We just kept fighting, being aggressive, took the lead in a place that, not many teams have been ahead in this building. I should know. I've been on the other side. I'm proud of these guys in the way they fought through."
This is a team that with Bruce Pearl at the helm made a Sweet 16 appearance and won a conference title a year ago. They returned a solid core of veterans who have won. But they have been asked to buy into Jeter, who to any of them might have appeared unproven. That they have begun to do so at all is a testament to their coach, Ryan believes.
"I'm extremely happy for him," Ryan said. "I just know that he'll do a great job and people there will just, I know, grab on to him and follow him because he is a great leader and he's a winner."
On the current state of this particular team, Jeter said, "We are making progress. We're getting better. I like where we are. Am I satisfied? No. Could we be better? Yes. But I think we're headed in the right direction."
As for the Badger players adjusting to their former coach on an opposing bench, they said it was special and even a little weird. Kammron Taylor laughed when he mentioned that Jeter had snuck into the Wisconsin locker room before the game to say hello.
The Panthers ran a swing offense very similar to that of Wisconsin. Taylor even noted how it was a bit strange to see Milwaukee running a lot of the same things the Badgers do, including some of their set plays. Winning a national championship as a player under Ryan at UW-Platteville and then coaching under him at three UW schools, no doubt Jeter puts faith in the system Ryan runs.
"They did a good job at taking some of our things away because they knew what we were going to be running," Taylor said. "I thought that was challenging."
Badger forward Alando Tucker said it was special getting another chance to learn from Jeter, a man who taught him so much. "It was special for a lot of reasons," he said. "But obviously my relationship with coach (Jeter) made it even more special."
But there are some things even a mentor cannot coach — among them passion and the composure to bridle that passion when it is necessary to lead. There will be much to learn along the way, but if things go like Ryan predicts, Jeter should be just fine.