MILWAUKEE — Jordan Aaron has been wearing a net around campus these days.
It’s the souvenir from the postgame celebration after Milwaukee won the Horizon League tournament last week to get into the NCAA tournament. Aaron didn’t want to forget that moment, so he’s been wearing the net around his neck. A lot. To classes. To a pep rally. Pretty much everywhere except the shower.
The Panthers’ rags-to-riches march to the tourney can be epitomized in the season of the 5-foot-10 senior guard from the Bronx.
“Tough. As. Nails,” said assistant coach Sharif Chambliss, tapping a desk after each word for emphasis. “If you say I played like I him, I’d be honored to play with that much heart, because that kid plays with a lot of heart.”
No. 15 seed Milwaukee (21-13) plays second-seeded Villanova on Thursday night in Buffalo, N.Y., the latest whirlwind chapter in a basketball story that can only be crafted in March.
“I’m just so humbled about this whole experience,” Aaron said. “I just want to be joyous in this moment that I’m having. I try to keep (the net) around my neck as a reminder.”
Milwaukee was written off in the preseason, picked last in the conference preseason poll. Written off after Aaron, the team’s leading scorer at 15 points per contest, was suspended four games toward the end of the regular season for a violation of team rules.
And the Panthers were written off again after losing to Illinois-Chicago, the last-place team in the league that finished the year 6-25. The loss came at home, on Senior Night. Even the return of Aaron, allowed to play in his final home game, didn’t help in that one.
The Panthers won their regular-season finale against Detroit, earning a home game to open the conference tournament. A water leak caused some minor damage to the basketball offices, bothersome enough that coach Rob Jeter had to move to the hallway to watch video.
But disruptions aren’t new for a program that’s had seven athletic directors in Jeter’s nine seasons at Milwaukee. The Panthers practice in an indoor multi-purpose facility that this week was also being used by the baseball team.
“I don’t want to say we’re used to it because I don’t know if you ever want to say you’re used to that,” Jeter said about overall distractions. “You just kind of figure out a way ... to go with the flow, roll with the punches.”
And then suddenly, Milwaukee was on a late-season roll, including a victory in the league tournament semifinal on the road at conference favorite Green Bay before claiming the NCAA bid by defeating Wright State, 69-63, last week.
On one hand, the coaches can easily explain what happened — the team regrouped, played with toughness and started outrebounding opponents. Forward Matt Tiby (12.1 points, 6.6 rebounds) added a jolt of energy again, and the squad fed off the momentum provided by Tiby and Aaron.
Behind the scenes, outside of the two-plus hours of national exposure during the emotional conference title game, was a team that “really cares for each other, that really rallied behind Jordan,” Jeter said. “They didn’t see a kid that was really upset and mad at himself and very hurt that he let his teammates down.”
Aaron, during a four-game stretch to get into the NCAAs, averaged 20.5 points and shot 21 of 25 (84 percent) from the foul line.
Having grown up in New York, Aaron watched a lot of Villanova and Big East basketball. At one point, Wildcats guard Dylan Ennis attended his same high school in the Bronx, and Aaron has played against Ennis and Villanova forward JayVaughn Pinkston back home.
Aaron says the 6-foot-7 Pinkston plays with confidence as a “powerful guy inside.” But he plans to share his full scouting report with teammates once they settle in Buffalo.
For Aaron, March can especially be difficult because his mother died of cancer five years ago this month.
“This kid is playing with a lot on his heart, a lot on his mind,” Chambliss said, “and for him to be able to go out there and express it on the basketball court is awesome, just awesome.”