Stuck in the mud

Some times, we are absolutely nowhere.

We could spend hours enumerating the many things that went wrong with the Milwaukee Panthers in tonight’s season-crushing loss to the UIC Flames, but it would be a great disservice to act as though the problems facing Milwaukee Athletics are as simple as a team that isn’t up to snuff and a coach whose victory output has never matched the salary.

It’s much deeper. But in the interest of being thorough, let’s get tonight out of the way.

This basketball team came into the 2013-14 season looking to move forward, and it has done so in a significant way by doubling last season’s win total. It was perilously thin at the guard position, the best that could be said for it was at least deeper than last year. With injuries to Bobo Niang and Cody Wichmann (he’s been hobbling on a bad ankle and is due for surgery on March 13th unless – haha – we go to the tournament) and a suspension to Jordan Aaron – you better believe I’m addressing that – the guard position has been worse over the past two weeks than it was last season.

The two best players on the team have been Steve McWhorter and Matt Tiby. The unfortunate truth with both of them is that they hadn’t played a second of game basketball in two years, and that fact killed their legs in January. It doesn’t help that both players are prone to fouling and putting themselves on the bench.

With all that, the Panthers have had to lean on a shallow bench. JR Lyle isn’t ready, although you can see shades of something special down the road. Quinton Gustavson and Mitch Roelke are playing significant minutes. That’s all you need to know.

None of it excuses the poor ball control. One could amount a small fortune if they had a dollar for every stupid turnover committed by the Milwaukee Panthers this season. That’s a coaching mistake.

These kids work hard. Some of them worked so hard in November and December that they are burnt out in February. Tiby probably should have been kept to 20 minutes a game from day one, but then the team would have lost some of those games in the 9-2 start. The fact is that the talent level on this basketball team isn’t up to snuff to compete over a full season with Green Bay and especially Cleveland State, who has curiously eligible workhorses every year. Those are recruiting errors.

But not all of this lands on the shoulders of Rob Jeter and his coaching staff. I know you want it to. It’s easy to point a finger at Coach and say “He’s not getting it done. Look at X wins and Y losses. He’s not achieving the way Bruce Pearl did.” No, he’s not. He also doesn’t cheat, but our past is our past.

Let’s take this moment so we can acknowledge that yes, I did say that Bruce Pearl cheated at Milwaukee. I talk to many of you, if not all of you, and I can’t count how many stories I’ve heard of breaking and bending rules with this program. If you want to challenge it, go right ahead, but you know you’re wrong. Walt Waters? Anthony Passley? To be sure, none of the stories I heard are morally ambiguous, they’re just the lame rules that the NCAA came up with to promote an even playing field. Some of these rules have even been repealed. Even if you disagree, there are secondary violations on the books. It’s not like we were hiding anything.

The truth is that Rob Jeter is playing with a different deck of cards than most of Division I, a deck of cards that is missing some of the face cards required for a Royal Flush. It’s all right though. We can feel safe that we have some moral authority here, that we are above those who are cheating the system by turning their schools into diploma mills so they can get better talent on the court. It just doesn’t feel good doing that anymore.

I never got the NCAA’s need for prospective student-athletes to meet a higher academic requirement than other kids to be eligible to begin playing in a sport. Shouldn’t college athletics be an agent of change in these young people’s lives? Maybe a kid doesn’t have the grades to get into school, but he can play basketball so that school is interested. Is this not the situation the NCAA should embrace? Shouldn’t we see what the kid can do with this opportunity that is presented to them, not force them to meet set criteria to get in the club in the first place?

I’m not sure, but I know Ricky Franklin and his Bachelor’s in Sociology are a pretty good indicator of that a player who doesn’t make the grades can do with the opportunity that presents itself. This is a kid who couldn’t qualify to play coming out of high school, but because Rob Jeter cared enough to keep him around, he eventually got on the team and excelled in the classroom, on the basketball court, and in life.

Sorry to get off on a tangent, but I didn’t feel like I could continue my rambling without making that point first. The truth is we may never get to see what kind of coach Rob Jeter could have been because he has never had a university fully behind him in his mission to win at the game of basketball. It’s odd to read that sentence considering there are nine years under his belt as our head basketball coach. But it’s true.

John Calipari once said, while he was head coach at Memphis, that it “takes a village to win at a mid-major.” While we can chuckle to ourselves at the idea that Memphis is a mid-major, the fact holds up. If this is going to work, athletics – and by athletics I mean men’s basketball – has to be a priority from the Chancellor’s office on down to every marketing intern on campus.

If you’re a regular reader of PantherU I assume that by now you understand that athletics is important, but I’m assuming this piece will find its way into the inbox of people who aren’t regular readers, so bear with me.

Athletics is marketing. For every dollar we spend producing commercials with 50 mashed up fraction-of-a-second images in a 15-second slot, we should be spending that money in the salaries as well as recruiting and operations budgets of men’s basketball.

George Koonce was here for a short period of time, but he was right when he said that 85% of news clippings about a university come from its athletics program. That percentage may be down here recently because Satya Nadella is awesome. All we need now is for an alumni to be named CEO of a Fortune 500 behemoth every other week and we’ll be good. Or is he an alumnus of Madison? It seemed some of the news outlets that reported his hiring at Microsoft thought so. But we don’t have a branding problem or anything.

Eighty-five percent. That’s a lot of publicity for sports and not much left for academic achievement. I hope that we can create the next super battery or find the cure for cancer on this campus, but that’s a lot to hope for to keep brand awareness up. And kids aren’t going to schools because you found out how to power the next iPhone for over five hours. They’re going to school where they think things are going on. Whether or not they like sports, they know who you are because of your sports program.

The best example of this is our neighbors in West Town. Where would Marquette be without its basketball program? It’d be St. Mary’s College in Cleveland – nobody outside the area would know it exists. But you know what? People DO know Marquette exists. Coast to coast people may not know about their law school or their dental school, but they know those Marquette boys can play basketball. Maybe I should take a look at their admissions site.

The admissions site at Florida Gulf Coast almost crashed after Dunk City went to the Sweet Sixteen. Butler’s campus was overrun on both their runs to the Final Four. Tranfers decline, enrollment rises. Selectivity jumps. These are the facts, and they’re apparent here as much as anywhere else.

Immediately following the Sweet 16, UWM had about 26,000 students and a 92% selectivity rate – that means of the 100% of kids that applied to UWM, 92% were accepted (not enrolled). In the years that followed, UWM jumped to 32,000 students and selectivity dropped to 65%. That means we were bringing in many more students, and not only that but they were better students.

Since that peak, we’ve dropped enrollment back towards 28,000 and selectivity is becoming less so. This despite the addition of Innovation Park, the new science building, more dorms and two brand new professional schools. So why are we falling back? It’s because we’re getting further and further away from March 2005. Next month it will be nine years since that magical run to the Sweet 16. We got our peak, now we’re in a valley. How are we going to get back on the rise?

It’s basketball. Countless studies have shown that the mere existence of a nationally-competitive athletics program brings the boost to marketability and brand awareness.

The university knows this. That’s why the administration lobbied on behalf of athletics to increase the segregated fee for athletics from $77.25 a semester to $119.00 per semester.

And I have a problem with that. I have a problem with a university that has said, with its actions, “Yes, we agree athletics needs more funding. Instead of taking that on in the operating budget, let’s add it to the crushing burden that the cost of a college education is on students.” The students are paying $5 million per year in segregated fees to support this program. The university hasn’t come close to matching it.

If it did, something so simple as buying out a coach’s contract would take a second’s thought. Making sure that coach has the level of staff he needs to succeed, the recruiting budget to scour the country for the next NBA player, and the operating budget to make the current team succeed on and off the court, these are the things that will turn the program from something fun for students to do on a few winter nights into the powerhouse vessel to spread the university’s message nationwide.

We need that extra 6,000 students that came because they knew about a school that wasn’t on their radar before the NCAA Tournament. We need those kids from California and Florida, from Idaho and Virginia to see what we have here and want to be a part of it. Let’s be honest, it’s about tuition dollars. If every one of those 6,000 kids were Wisconsin residents, we’d be talking about $56 million a year in tuition alone, forget room and board. if we only added, say, 1,000 out-of-state students? That’s $19 million right there.

When you’re talking about the dollars and cents to make a basketball program at the mid-major level a national power like Wichita State, you’re talking about adding $2 million annually to the men’s basketball budget. Milwaukee spends about $2 million right now. Wichita State falls in the $4.6 million range. Butler is just under four million. But they have the facilities.

If the university were to add $2 million to its men’s basketball budget and build an elite practice facility and spread it over, say, ten years using money from the athletics facilities fee and overall budget, the money spent is a drop in the bucket when you’re talking about a $700 million budget. It’s even more important when the success of the basketball team is so closely connected to the enrollment of the institution.

So it has to happen, from the chancellor on down. The entire UWM community needs to understand what kind of an asset men’s basketball can be, and it is up to Mike Lovell to be the first convert and head preacher in the church of roundball.

Obviously my rooting interests lie here because I’ve got a dog in the fight; I’ve bled Black and Gold for almost a decade without payoff. But that doesn’t make my words any less true.

We get so caught up in the process of being a squeaky clean athletics program that we forget to win. The rumors say that Jordan Aaron allegedly tested positive for marijuana and thus was suspended four games (out of 5? Is there precedent?). I hope that’s not true, because we’ve seen lesser sentences handed out in this conference for DUI’s and those players could have killed people. The worst thing about having a stoned college student in your house is you’re going to the grocery store sooner than you expected.

I mean, Milwaukee beat Wright State a few weeks ago and that team featured a player that spent 19 days in jail last fall for beating his girlfriend. Fourteen games for abuse, four games for (allegedly) pot.

Ten years ago, Chancellor Nancy Zimpher fought tooth and nail to get the funding to build the Klotsche Center Pavilion. Some $60 million went into a facility that largely exists for the general student population. The athletic department got actual offices for the first time.

No one is saying that the university needs to spend less money in academics – we all know the reason the school exists – but athletics should be the conduit through which our brand message reaches the country.

Instead, we’re likely looking at a Horizon League representation by Green Bay, forever continuing in this state’s collective mind the idea that UWGB and UWM are two schools created equal, which is like saying I have roughly the same ability to shoot a basketball as Travis Bader.

It takes a village, but every village has a chieftain that runs the show. Let’s just hope we can get this show on the road, because I for one am sick and tired of watching average basketball.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *