PantherU

All eyes on the Cell

Horizon League Championship

vs.

Butler (22-9, 14-5 HL) vs. Milwaukee (19-12, 14-5 HL)

U.S. Cellular Arena – Milwaukee, Wisconsin – 8 p.m.

TV: ESPN

It’s surprising, isn’t it?  Just 9-11, 4-5 two months ago and this team is now playing with a ten-game conference winning streak.

Kaylon Williams can lead this team to the promised land.

Kaylon Williams can lead this team to the promised land.

But to be honest, all of that doesn’t matter now.  Neither does Butler’s slightly shorter winning streak.  Or the fact that Milwaukee swept the Bulldogs in the regular season.

Nope. The only thing that matters is Milwaukee vs. Butler, 8 p.m. on Tuesday, U.S. Cellular Arena.  If the Panthers, the #1 seed, are going to pull the “upset,” then they will need to win several smaller battles within the game.

Fluster Matt Howard – The Bulldogs’ best player, one of the all-time Horizon League greats (yeah I said it), Matt Howard will be playing his final Horizon League game.  He has a nose for the ball that no player in this conference can match.  He always plays hard, he is a great floor leader, and while we may criticize him heavily for it, his flopping helps Butler win games.

But – Anthony Hill is Matt Howard’s kryptonite.  The Dawgs’ star just can’t seem to contain Ant Hill.  It’s partly because of Hill’s supreme athleticism and strength, partly because of his low-post skills, and all because of his innate ability to get under Howard’s skin.  Unlike Eli Holman, who tends to take every other play off, Ant Hill goes hard at Matt Howard consistently.  If the refs are calling a game down the middle, Howard gets in foul trouble because he can’t beat Hill on the defensive end.  In the event he gets flustered because of it, Howard will make mistakes in bunches and find himself on the bench.

– Refuse the driving lane – In this high stakes game, players like Shelvin Mack drive the lane to set up two things: the open shooter and the foul.  Butler gets to the line consistently, which is one of the reasons they’re so good.  If they are covered down low, they can kick out to the open shooter, and we’ve been burned by Zach Hahn before.  Chase Stigall’s emergence only makes guarding the perimeter that much more difficult.

If we cut off their driving lanes early, Butler will be forced to either A) count on the Howard vs. Hill match-up down low, or B) take contested jump shots.

– Play defense for 35 seconds every possession – Milwaukee has a great defense.  It’s not spectacular, but Ryan Allen can guard anyone, Kaylon Williams is strong, and the defensive set works.  But if Butler gets consistent pressure each possession, the Panther defense can sag the tiniest bit.  This allows players like Brandon Wood and Cory Johnson on Saturday to drive the lane uncontested and get easy layups.

Points will be at a premium, so expect coach Rob Jeter to have his guys playing to the buzzer on every possession.  When they do, they’re a damn hard team to beat because they do make opposing offenses waste the shot clock trying to get a good look.

Past the keys to the game, there are several things that will weigh into the outcome.

Experience – What the Bulldogs lack in skilled size (sorry, Andrew Smith isn’t there yet) they have in boat loads of experience.  Except for the freshmen and Chase Stigall (who mostly rode the bench), each of Butler’s players has been deep into the NCAA Tournament.  You just can’t pay for that sort of thing.  The seniors especially, along with Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack, are practically coaches on the floor and won’t bow down to difficult situations early.  The good news for Milwaukee is this: I’ve been saying it for weeks now, but our NCAA Tournament effectively began on January 23rd at Hinkle Fieldhouse.  We’ve survived the close calls, and this team is battle-tested.

The Crowd – Hinkle Fieldhouse is a difficult place to play on the most ordinary of conference games.  The crowd is big, the acoustics are loud, and the ghosts of college basketball smile upon the Bulldogs.  But the U.S. Cellular Arena is a different animal.  The city of Milwaukee is a population of front-runners.  Our people fall in and out of love with the sports teams so quickly, that despite having 2,500 at most games this season, a near-sellout is guaranteed and the possibility of 10,783 is likely.

This is what Butler will find on Tuesday night.

We finally have a chant that the whole crowd can do with each other.  The students yelling Milwaukee, and the alumni answering with Panthers is a beautiful, beautiful thing to be heard.  If the entire Black and Gold clad fans can get in on it, then we’ll be taking a big step toward becoming something bigger.

I will close with this, a directive to the crowd.  Get in on every cheer you are able to follow.  Let the student section take care of it on every play up and down the court, but stand up and get loud if you are able.  Stand until the first Panther basket.  The team needs every boost of energy it can get.

We need the biggest number possible to have the largest effect possible.  Milwaukee needs to hear this.

If you’re ever Milwaukee, you are Milwaukee tonight.  Earn your stripes.

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