JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There were little battles to be fought when Rob Jeter replaced Bruce Pearl as coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee last April. No more headbands. No more wristbands.
But Jeter never said anything about facial hair. Senior forward Adrian Tigert stroked his tiny, almost invisible, goatee Thursday and just smiled.
"The last time I shaved this before a game, we lost," Tigert said after scoring 14 points to help the Panthers to an 82-74 victory over No. 6 seed Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
For the record, that loss was Jan. 14 to Wisconsin-Green Bay. In the big picture, that setback means little after the Panthers advanced to a second-round meeting with Florida on Saturday. What college basketball fans need to know about Wisconsin-Milwaukee is that the Panthers were a Sweet 16 team last year – and they are halfway there again this year.
Based on the Panthers' No. 11 seeding, the victory over the Sooners was an upset. In reality, it wasn't much of a surprise. Wisconsin-Milwaukee starts five seniors. Basically, this is the same group that broke the hearts of Alabama and Boston College fans last year.
Except for the coach.
"It's all about making the other team play your game," Tigert said. "It was the same thing with Coach Pearl. We wanted teams to run with us. Now with Coach Jeter we want to press teams and we want them to run. We also want to get them in a half-court set, post them up and run our offense. It's all the little things, the things you know you can control, the things we need to do against these so-called major teams."
"So-called" major teams? If that sounds like Horizon League trash talk, then so be it. The Panthers have the results to back up their words.
"I think we cherish [being in the tournament] more," Tigert said. "I'm not saying Oklahoma did this, but in my experience over the last two years, I think [teams from the major conferences] almost take it for granted when they get here. They think they should be here. . . .Shoot, if we showed up and didn't give it our all, I think we'd be pretty disappointed in ourselves."
Tigert is one of seven seniors on the Wisconsin-Milwaukee roster. Joah Tucker (24 points against Oklahoma), Jason McCoy, Chris Hill (10) and Boo Davis (26) are the other senior starters. It is their aggressive play on the court, and their willingness to accept change off the court, that helped Jeter win his first NCAA Tournament game.
"They want to be coached," Jeter said. "They accept different ways. I didn't come in and change the game of basketball. I just told them, These are my thoughts. This is what I want to emphasize.' They accepted it. I think there was respect on both ends, because I told them flat out I was proud to be their coach."
Jeter, 36, played at UW-Platteville from 1987-91. He was an assistant at Platteville, Marquette and Milwaukee before joining Bo Ryan's staff at Wisconsin in 2001. When he returned to Milwaukee and replaced Pearl, he told the Panthers he could only coach them "based on how I know things work for myself."
"I want[ed] us to look like a team," Jeter said. "I don't like the headbands because I don't think they serve a purpose. I said if we begin the year not wearing them, then it becomes a habit. And then it's not something that we're taking away."
Tigert summed it up, calling the year a learning experience. The course wasn't always smooth, he said, but everyone is now better off for the experience.
"We're excited to be out there," Tigert said. "We take that excitement and turn it into positive energy. Some teams might take energy and turn it into pressure. We had a bulls' eye on our back all year through conference play because of high expectations from the past four years.
"We finally get that bulls' eye off our back [in the NCAAs] and we're the underdog again. That's a relief. We love that."
OVER AND BOOKOUT
Kevin Bookout's Oklahoma career ended with a 14-point, eight-rebound performance. On Wednesday, the senior forward said the Sooners had a lot more basketball in them. But 25 personal fouls and 18 turnovers were too much for them to overcome in the loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"Little things is what basketball is about," Bookout said. "It's about eliminating mistakes and just being solid. If we had been solid, I think we would have been fine. We respected them when we came in and we respect them even more after playing them. They're a good team and they did all the little things right."
After four years on the job, South Alabama Coach John Pelphrey is happy with the strong foundation he helped build.
"We have had an unbelievable run with this basketball team," Pelphrey said. "It has been a really special year. When this whole thing started about a year ago, I told these guys in the locker room, nobody would believe where you are right now. I am so proud of them."
Despite the 76-50 loss to his mentor, Florida coach Billy Donovan, Pelphrey felt good.
"He told me he was proud of me," he said. "I think that makes the 951st time in the last two weeks."
THIS AND THAT
- Wisconsin-Milwaukee never trailed against Oklahoma. There were four ties.
- Florida never trailed against South Alabama.
- Pelphrey has never beaten a Southeastern Conference school. He is 0-7 against the SEC since coming to South Alabama.
- Oklahoma's streak of three consecutive first-round victories in the tournament was snapped.
Ken Davis, a longtime college basketball writer for the Hartford Courant, is covering the NCAA Tournament exclusively for Yahoo! Sports from Jacksonville, Fla., this week and Atlanta next week.