Pat Miller was expecting some growing pains within his UW-Whitewater men’s basketball program this season.

The Warhawks lost the vast majority of their main contributors from a season ago, and Miller tasked his inexperienced team with installing new systems.

With the nonconference portion of the season behind them and the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference season beginning Saturday with a 66-59 loss on the road against Eau Claire, in some ways Miller has gotten exactly what he expected.

The Warhawks went 5-6 in nonconference play. They won all five games by six points or less, showing they can win close games. But they also lost three times by five points or less, suffered through a four-game losing streak and are just 1-3 at home.

“It’s usually one step forward and two steps back with this group,” Miller said Friday. “They haven’t been consistent in their execution. Part of it is the learning process.

“We’ve had better practices this week. It would be nice if you could just tell people something, and that’s it. Unfortunately, it typically takes experience for people to learn.”

Miller said the Warhawks have particularly struggled at the offensive end.

He set out at the start of this season to install a system based off former Michigan coach John Beilein’s two-guard system.

“We’ve been able to score,” Miller said. “But I’ve been around long enough to know that when we got up against good defensive teams, we’d struggle.”

UW-W junior Equan Ards, a Milwaukee Hamilton graduate who transferred in this year, led the WIAC in scoring during the nonconference season. He averaged 22.1 points per game. He’s also averaging 5.7 rebounds.

Sophomore Bailey Kale is leading the league in assists with more than 5 per game, and he’s scoring 17.2 points per outing.

Freshman Trevon Chislom is averaging nearly 10 points per game and ranks third in the league in field goal percentage at 59.2%.

Senior Riley Jensen, a Janesville Craig graduate, is averaging 4.4 points and 3.5 rebounds.

And the Warhawks are getting healthier. Austin Gates, who started the season opener then missed the next eight games, returned to come off the bench in the final two nonconference games in Florida. And forward David Grintjes recently returned after missing the first nine games due to injury.

“We’ve just got to keep moving in the right direction,” Miller said. “Our younger guys are getting more experience and more confidence. We’ve got a lot of different pieces, and it’s just a matter of getting them all on the same page.”

More than half the league on national radar

Continuing to learn on the fly will not be easy in the WIAC.

In the latest national Division III rankings, released Dec. 15, five of the league’s eight teams were either ranked in the top 25 or receiving votes in the poll.

UW-Platteville, ranked ninth, is 10-1, and UW-La Crosse, ranked 15th, is 10-0. Defending national champion UW-Oshkosh (6-5), UW-Stevens Point (8-3) and UW-Eau Claire (9-2) were all receiving votes.

The conference is good, but the fortunate thing for us is playing Wash U.,

Calvin and Amherst, we’ve seen good teams,” Miller said. “So we’re prepared from that perspective, now it’s just if we’re willing to make the strides to execute at a high level.”

Miller believe the league race is wide open.

“Oshkosh’s record doesn’t look great, but they’ve got good wins and played a good schedule. And when you win a championship, you’re now a big game for every opponent you face,” Miller said. “La Crosse has played well, Platteville is obviously solid, Eau Claire has really improved. River Falls (7-4) even has some good wins but just needs consistency and to get healthy.

“As it typically is, game in and game out will be a challenge.”

Women’s race solid, too

On the women’s basketball side of things, half of the league’s eight teams were ranked or receiving votes in the latest poll.

UW-Whitewater, which opened WIAC play Saturday at home with a win against Eau Claire (5-6), won its final eight nonconference games in a row, including a 75-69 victory over No. 17-ranked St. Thomas at Wisconsin Dells on Monday. The Warhawks are ranked No. 19.

UW-La Crosse, with senior and Janesville Craig grad Delaney Schoenenberger averaging 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds, is 9-2 and ranked 11th.

UW-Platteville (8-3) fell out of the rankings to what would be No. 27, while UW-Stout (9-2), winner of four straight, also was receiving votes in the latest poll.