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First-year coach Bart Lundy has UW-Milwaukee on the cusp of March magic

The Panthers were picked 9th in the preseason. They are the No. 2 seed as the Horizon League Tournament nears.

Syndication: The Des Moines Register Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

Not too long ago, UW-Milwaukee had a chance to become the premier basketball program in the Horizon League.

Bruce Pearl led the Panthers to their first NCAA Tournament in 2003, then took the team to the Sweet 16 two years later. Pearl left for Tennessee, but replacement Rob Jeter won an NCAA Tournament game in 2006.

During Butler’s subsequent rise as a mid-major power, UWM remained the Bulldogs’ primary challenger. The Panthers were competitive until the school fired Jeter in 2016; the team has gone 68-116 over the last six seasons.

This year has been different. The Panthers — picked ninth in the Horizon League preseason poll — finished the regular season at 20-10 (14-6 Horizon League) and open the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed. It was their best league finish since 2010.

The architect of this quick turnaround is new head coach Bart Lundy, who immediately gained respect in Milwaukee with his recognition of the program’s history and potential.

“Not saying I’m Bruce Pearl by any means,” Lundy said at his introductory press conference. “But, they’ve been to the Sweet 16, and they know what it tastes like what it looks like. I hope I can represent that kind of lineage.”

Like Pearl, who previously built a powerhouse at Southern Indiana, Lundy also came to UWM from a successful Division II program.

In two stints as the head coach at Queens University of Charlotte (NC), Lundy led the Royals to nine NCAA Tournaments and a pair of D-II Final Fours.

During the decade in between, he spent six years at High Point during the school’s early DI days and worked as the director of basketball operations at Marquette — providing him familiarity with the college basketball scene in Milwaukee.

“I just knew what the bones of what the Milwaukee job was – the practice facility, the Arena, that the city will get behind a winner,” he said.

UWM’s new coach faced a difficult task. The Panthers were 10-22 (8-14 Horizon League) last season, and with just 14% of their minutes returning, Lundy had to get creative when it came to building his roster.

“I had to go wherever I could go when I got here and you see that with 13 new players,” he said.

Lundy signed eight transfers in his first offseason, with five coming from outside the DI level. Five other players on the Panthers roster also played at the DII or junior college level at one point.

Mid-majors regularly procure non-DI transfers, but these guys rarely become the immediate foundation for a March Madness contender as they have in Milwaukee.

UWM’s leading scorer this season is BJ Freeman — who played under new UWM assistant coach Jake Williams at Dodge City Community College in 2021-22.

The sophomore wing was instrumental in UWM’s triumphs over Horizon League contenders, with each performance somehow surpassing the last. On Jan. 5, Freeman’s last-second 3-pointer against Cleveland State sent the game to overtime — where the underdog Panthers pulled off the road win.

“BJ takes and makes big shots,” Lundy said after the game. “And, we believe in him.”

That buzzer beater was the start of a remarkable scoring stretch for UWM’s star, who averaged 21.2 PPG the rest of the way. In a pair of January victories over Northern Kentucky, Freeman put up 28 points at home, then used a 23-point outburst to help the Panthers overcome a 20-point halftime deficit on the NKU campus.

Freeman concluded the regular season with a career-best 31 points vs. Cleveland State. The result secured a second-place finish and gave the Panthers a 5-1 record against the Horizon League’s top four.

Two other UWM starters — Kentrell Pullian and Justin Thomas — also spent last year playing non-DI hoops.

Pullian, who came over from Eastern New Mexico, has shot 40% from deep and is the Panthers’ second-leading scorer with 11 points per game. The 6-foot-7-inch Thomas arrived from Navarro College in Texas after a season under Lundy at Queens. He leads the team in assists despite playing as a wing.

All three were near their best in another season-defining triumph, this time against Purdue Fort Wayne on Feb. 23. Pullian had a season-high 25 points, and Thomas added 14 points and a few key steals to fuel Milwaukee’s early second half comeback.

But again, Freeman was the star.

Freeman’s 19 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists gave him the fifth triple-double in program history, and the win clinched the Panthers a first-round bye in the Horizon League Tournament.

“I just trusted my teammates and kept dishing it to them and they kept knocking shots down,” Freeman said after the game. “We put the work in and it showed tonight.”

The UWM coaching staff’s JUCO connections also yielded the team’s most impactful defensive player: former Oregon State big Ahmad Rand.

Williams coached Rand at the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie in 2019-20. Meanwhile, Lundy recruited Rand at Queens. Rand has been crucial inside for the Panthers, posting one of the highest block rates in the country — all while playing as a senior walk-on.

The 6-foot-8-inch center was a late signing over the summer, meaning UWM had no available scholarships. That did not affect Rand’s decision.

“I know what Coach Lundy is trying to build here, and I know that he can help me, so I’m going to do all I can to try and help him, too,” Rand said.

“I’m real nonchalant with stuff like (walking on),” he added. “I could have gone to another school and gotten a scholarship. But, I’ve known Jake for the longest and Coach Lundy for the longest, and I’d rather take that risk than go anywhere else.”

It was an incredible belief in a man who had yet to coach a game in Panther Arena. This trust is reflected in the chemistry and energy the Panthers have on the floor.

“We knew something was there before the season even started,” Freeman said. “We were coming together. Just spending time with each other, growing a bond that’s so strong and nobody can break it.”

In the past, UWM teams had all-conference (and even NBA) level talent but often lacked cohesion. In Bart Lundy’s first season, he has combined both. It has proven a winning formula — one Lundy hopes can put Milwaukee basketball back on the map.

“Just what it means for the university, to establish and get back that pride in Milwaukee basketball,” Lundy said after defeating Cleveland State to secure second place in the conference.

“There’s so many of these fans that have to go back to 2010 to be proud of the program,” Lundy added. “Every single year, we want to be a perennial power in the league. And when people say, ‘Milwaukee’ they think of a really good basketball team.”

The challenge for Lundy moving forward is whether he can build the continuity required to be a successful mid-major program.

For now, the focus is is more immediate: leading UW-Milwaukee back to the NCAA Tournament.