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Bell takes next step, shines as junior at UWM

Jeremiah Bell made the upperclassman jump this season at Milwaukee.

The Boyle County graduate led the Panthers with 14.1 points per game en route to being named Second Team All-Conference in the Horizon League.

Bell was happy with the way he played this season.

“It was a good year. I can always do better, but I feel like I improved in a lot of areas,” he said. “I was a more efficient player from the field, especially in league play. I definitely elevated my game in that aspect. I feel like I made my teammates better around me. I just feel like I’ve blossomed into one of the better players in the Horizon League. Me working on my game this summer has really put me in a position to where I can be successful in years to come and hopefully get to that next level.”

Efficiency took a huge step for Bell, despite his increase in shots: In 2016-17, he averaged 7.2 points per game, shooting 37.5 percent from the field, 29.3 percent from deep and 60.9 percent from the foul line.

His shooting numbers jumped across the board: 42.3 percent from the field, 38.3 percent from deep and 75.9 percent from the line.

Milwaukee head coach Pat Baldwin, in his first year as coach, knew he had to get the ball to Bell this season.

“When I first got the job here, I had watched film and saw him in workouts. I knew he had a ton of potential to do some really good things,” Baldwin said. “What I wanted to do was put the ball in his hands and put him in a position to make plays for us and he certainly came through for us in many different ways this year. I’m looking forward to his progression as a player, as a leader and leading us to even better things next year.”

The progression in his junior season led coaches across the Horizon League to vote Bell as a Second Team All-Conference player.

“I think for JB, it just shows how much he has worked to get to this point,” Baldwin said of the league honor. “It shows how valuable he is to our team, as well. I think even more importantly, it shows what other coaches and programs are thinking about JB. They have the votes. I still think JB has a lot of growth and development ahead of him, as long as he keeps his head down, keep grinding, I think the future is bright for him.”

Bell will be a senior next year and his goal is simple: Dance.

“I definitely want to get to the Big Dance,” Bell said. “That’s the No. 1 goal. That’s what I’ve been thinking about since spring break: How can I raise my level, the level of my team. That’s all I’ve been thinking about, how I can make someone better in certain areas.

“Maybe I can drag guys to the gym with me, just finding ways to be a better leader to help my teammates out. That’s the only thing that matters to me right now. Of course, the first-team accolades are in the back of my mind, but at the end of the day, I want to be a champion. I’ve yet to have a ring on my finger, that’s one of my main goals this next year.”

The 2018 NCAA Tournament stung every time Bell watched — Wright State, winners of the Horizon League, lost in the first round to Tennessee. Bell and Milwaukee defeated Wright State twice during the regular season.

Another team Milwaukee beat during the year? Loyola.

Loyola was the story of the tournament, making the Final Four as an 11-seed. Bell scored nine points against the Ramblers in a 73-56 victory in December.

“Yeah it drives me crazy,” Bell said. “That was one of the things, every time I saw those guys win, it gave me that itch. I know that we’re capable of playing at a high level, with those guys. The fact that we did come up short, we lost to Wright State and we beat those guys twice in the regular season. It’s hard to beat a team three times. But we still had that game won, and we would’ve been on that same side with Loyola, we could’ve played Tennessee in that first round. That’s in the back of my head, it’s possible for us to play with those high-level schools.”

So how’s it happen for the Panthers in 2018-19?

Baldwin said Bell was a vocal leader this season for a relatively quiet squad — and he wants to see even more of that leadership next season.

“I think one of the things that, if you look at our team, we don’t have a ton of vocal guys that lead through communicating that way,” Baldwin said. “JB has that, and we’d love for him to take that even further with his leadership. I think he’s proven it on the court that he could get things done, now we need him to be even more vocal out there on the floor and take that initiative.”

Bell said his goal every time he steps on the court is dominate.

“My mentality is always to dominate,” he said. “This year, going into my last year, it’s obviously an important year personally but team-wise as well. We’ve been right there these last two years and it’s time for us to get over that hump. I want to dominate every aspect of the game, rebounding, assists, defending.”