On a blustery day in Detroit this past March, the UIC men's basketball team was looking to earn a sweep of Horizon League foe Milwaukee and thus earn a trip to the league's postseason championship game.
The Flames had already beaten the Panthers twice in the past two months and utilized their balanced offense to do so. UIC was a team that had six guys averaging at least 9.3 points per game and in those earlier wins had put five in double figures once and four in the other victory.
However, Milwaukee had a defensive adjustment ready for UIC in the tournament game and the strategy worked, as the Panthers knocked off the Flames and moved on to the title game.
“They did what nobody did to us all year,” UIC coach Steve McClain said afterward. “After about the first possession, they said 'We're going to play zone' and it slowed the game down.”
The idea was implemented by Milwaukee coach LaVall Jordan, who had learned “a ton of lessons” in his first year as a head coach, a trying 11-win season, and not just when to play zone and when not to.
“We have learned a ton of lessons,” Jordan had said of his team just days earlier.
Those “lessons” learned were enough to impress Butler University Athletic Director Barry Collier, who named Jordan as the next Bulldogs' coach Monday.
Jordan will replace Chris Holtmann, who resigned last week to accept the same position at Ohio State.
“LaVall is a tremendous coach who exemplifies The Butler Way,” Collier said in a release, who as the team's head coach first recruited Jordan to Butler in 1997. “He has played a major role in successful programs that have competed at the highest levels. LaVall also has a deep appreciation for our university and this program, and will recruit and develop young men who will represent Butler well. We are thrilled to welcome LaVall, Destinee, and their three beautiful daughters back to Butler.”
On the surface, hiring a guy that has just 11 career victories and finished dead last in the Horizon League in his lone season isn't overly impressive. However, it would be erroneous to judge Jordan by the past nine months alone. But for argument's sake, go ahead and do just that.
While it is true that the Panthers finished 11-24, it is also true that Milwaukee lost seven of its top eight players from the previous season, including all five starters. That led to Jordan's guys being 8-23 on Feb. 26 following a loss to league champion Oakland. However, look deeper into the matter and you'll find some pretty impressive stuff.
Though Oakland finished first in the conference and Milwaukee 10th, the Grizzlies had to go overtime in order to get past Jordan's team.
And Oakland wasn't the only team to struggle with Milwaukee.
League runner-up Valparaiso lost to the Panthers in the league tournament, third place Northern Kentucky (an NCAA Tournament team) lost to the Panthers by 10, while fourth place Green Bay had to fight like heck to hold off Milwaukee (winning by 6) in Green Bay.
Of those 24 Panther defeats, 13 were by single digits.
“I have so much respect for our young men, our student-athletes that are wearing the jersey and representing Milwaukee with so much pride,” Jordan said following the season.
Following that aforementioned loss to Oakland, Jordan got his team refocused and it went on an improbable postseason run, winning three of its final four games and becoming the first 10th seed to advance to the Horizon League Tournament.
A lesser team, with a lesser coach, could've folded in those wearisome days of a frigid February by the lake. But Milwaukee – and Jordan – never did.
“They showed up every day,” Jordan said in March, “regardless of the circumstance and just wanted to improve, be a better team, be better teammates, to figure out how to get things done together. I couldn't be more thankful for a first group to coach.”
Jordan's work was impressive in many ways this season, but his time spent as an assistant through 13 earlier years is remarkable in its own right.
He spent six seasons at Michigan, where he helped the Wolverines to a pair of Big Ten titles, an Elite Eight appearance, and the 2013 national championship game.
Prior to that Jordan coached at Iowa for three seasons and Butler, his alma mater, for four.
Jordan graduated from Butler in 2001 as the Bulldogs' winningest player in history at the time and later coached Butler to a Horizon League title and the Sweet 16.
“I've always counted myself blessed to have worked with LaVall at Butler,” Boston Celtics coach and former Butler coach Brad Stevens said when Milwaukee hired Jordan. “He has a great feel for the game, has outstanding relationships with his players and co-workers and understands the importance of the basketball program representing its school well, on and off, the court.”
A press conference to formally introduce Jordan will be Wednesday in Indianapolis.
“This is a dream come true,” Jordan said in a release. “Butler is a place that means so much to me and my family, and I am honored and humbled to lead this storied program. I want to thank President (James) Danko and Barry Collier for the faith they have placed in me to continue The Butler Way and our great success.”
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