LaVall Jordan Q&A: First-year coach finds optimism in young but unified Milwaukee squad

Photo: Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News
Photo: Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News
First-year coach LaVall Jordan took over at Milwaukee for Rob Jeter, who was fired despite winning 20 games last season. (Photo: Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News)

Milwaukee coach LaVall Jordan faces one of the biggest rebuilding jobs in the country. After the Panthers administration fired Rob Jeter in March despite a 20-win season, star point guard Jordan Johnson and skilled scorers Akeem Springs and Austin Arians transferred. With leading scorer Matt Tiby and starting forward J.J. Panoske graduating, the cupboard was nearly bare when Jordan arrived in early April.

Jordan caught up with The Catch and Shoot after Milwaukee faced DePaul at Allstate Arena on Sunday, a 77-59 defeat that dropped the Panthers to 1-2 on the young season.

You’re now a few weeks into your first season as a Division I head coach. How has the transition been?

I couldn’t be more pleased. I’ve been proud of our guys’ effort. We didn’t make shots tonight, but I thought we got great looks. I thought we moved the ball pretty well. We didn’t defend, that’s kind of where we’re wanting to go to be able to defend better. But I can’t say enough about the effort we’re getting. We just have to clean up some things execution wise and, you know, try to get more connected with better chemistry. These guys are learning each other, they’re learning a lot of new things from me that we’re trying to get accomplished. And now, we’ve just got to be able to execute when the moment comes.

This is a very young Milwaukee roster. How big has senior guard Cody Wichmann been as a veteran player and one of the few guys to stay with the program through the coaching change?

He’s been tremendous. Just tremendous. He hadn’t been in a leadership role like this maybe since high school when he was a senior and they won a state championship. He’s embraced it. He’s coming up to the office just to talk about the team and the pulse of the locker room. We all know he can make shots on the court. He didn’t make them tonight. (Wichmann shot 1-of-8 in the loss to DePaul.) But his attitude and his approach, I couldn’t be more pleased.

Even though Wichmann is the most experienced guy on the roster, he was a role player playing 15 minutes per game last season. What have you asked of him as a leader this year?

Him being aware of the fact that he’s one of the guys that has actually played meaningful minutes, we don’t have a lot of those guys. Him being aware of that, good, bad or indifferent, guys are going to look at him and see how he responds first just because he’s been out there the most. I don’t know if it should be that way, but leadership sometimes is placed upon you. You don’t get to choose. Being aware of his body language, what he’s saying and knowing how important that is and make sure that we’re connected so that in these moments especially when adversity hits and its tough, we’re along the same page.

Photo: Jesse Kramer / thecatchandshoot.com
Milwaukee freshman August Haas drives and looks for the open man in Sunday’s loss at DePaul. (Photo: Jesse Kramer / thecatchandshoot.com)

It’s still early of course, but what do you think are this team’s biggest strengths so far?

I think we’re together. When you’re unified that’s a huge strength. Guys enjoy each other. The ball moves. We pass up a good shot for a great shot. I think that is huge. I think the other big strength is that our effort is there. If you don’t have to coach effort that’s a big complement to the coach, because now you can talk about execution, you can talk about adjustments and strategy instead of yelling at guys to play hard. Yeah, there’s things we’ve got to improve. But there’s a lot of good things that we’re doing that I’m seeing, and we just have to be more consistent.

And what about a biggest weakness?

A big thing is our individual defense. When teams start driving and attacking 1-on-1, we’ve got to to be able to guard guys off the dribble. Memphis did that late in the second half. [DePaul] did it tonight. We struggled to just keep guys in front. We’ve got to get better at that. We’ve got to get better at finishing possessions. We had a couple in the first half where we guarded them well and then got them to miss the first shot but couldn’t hold them off for the second shot. And then some of it is we’ve got a couple of different coverages, and there was some confusion. That’s on me to make sure we have clarity to know what we’re doing at what time and that everybody understands which is which. We’ll get more clear there. And we’ll challenge them to defend. But I like the effort again. It’s just execution.

Looking forward to Horizon League play, are you excited for your matchups with Detroit and facing former staff mate Bacari Alexander from your Michigan assistant days?

I can’t look that far ahead. I know coach B.A. is over there. He’s going through similar things and trying to establish their identity as well. So I’m looking forward to the league, and I think the league is doing decent out of conference. We’re just trying to do our part.

Have you and Alexander spoken at all about the processes you are both going through as first-year head coaches in the same conference?

I got to connect with him at our Horizon League meetings in September. We talked about building a team, establishing culture and trying to get across the message.

When it comes to establishing a culture, what do you look for?

I think our guys, I love where our buy in is. We are fortunate to have the group that we have in terms of they’re easy to coach. That’s a huge compliment to them. I think they understand the tradition at Milwaukee. I think they have a burning desire to live up to those standards. So that’s important.

Do you think that establishing a winning culture is something you can accomplish here in your first year?

You know, who knows? Sometimes you don’t get the result right away. And I know today society wants that. I know that the approach that we have, I like. I like our approach. It’s just now we’ve got to be able to execute consistently for a 40 minute game. And that doesn’t just happen. That starts in practice, it starts with attitude. I like our approach and the direction that we’re headed.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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