Panthers Bask in NCAA Attention

So this is what it’s like.

This was what all the Milwaukee Panthers players were probably saying to themselves as they went through the week after winning the Horizon League tournament and clinching an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, capped off with a Selection Sunday party at UW-Milwaukee’s on-campus sports bar, the Gasthaus, packed to the brim with loyal fans decked in black and gold.

For once, they are the center of attention in hoops talk around Milwaukee. With “big brother” Marquette having a down year and forced to spend the rest of March on the outside looking in, the Panthers have become the big story. They are the front page news, the first story on local sports talk radio, the first topic on sports updates, and the Panthers have basked in the limelight, with the reaction of, “Thanks for finally noticing us.”

The fans were happy to join the fun as well, and Panther Nation was happy to welcome all types into the fold; from the passionate die-hard season ticket holders, to the once-cheered fans who used to cheer the Panthers on, then left when times got tough, and then decided to return when the time to dance came back, from the devoted student fans, to the bandwagon riders who needed a local team to follow, if for just one game.

They all showed up Sunday afternoon, ready to party with the Panthers as they awaited where their NCAA journey will begin and who will oppose them, as well as many others, including Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, decked out in a gold Horizon League champions t-shirt, giving every black-and-gold warrior a high-five. They embraced the fun as well, wearing the Panther colors with pride, buying the championship shirts, and posing for pictures with the championship trophies that were set up outside the main entrance. Some of the older fans happily touching the hardware with affection, as if to say, “Hello, old friend,” the newer fans gazing in awe and giddiness of seeing the proof of their favored team’s accomplishments, having never gotten to experience it before first hand.

So this is what it’s like.

While most experts, and fans, anticipated a match-up in St. Louis with Kansas, a collective groan came through the crowd as it was instead Eastern Kentucky chosen to meet the Jayhawks, and possible future Buck, Andrew Wiggins. The wait then started to become intense as the rest of the brackets started to get filled up, with Milwaukee still not getting their name called, leaving some to subconsciously wonder if, somehow, the Panthers got skipped over. After all, they’d been ignored before, right?

It became moot as the Milwaukee Panthers finally got their chosen spot in the Big Dance, paired up with #3-ranked Villanova, the regular season Big East champions, in Buffalo, New York. Maybe not the place most Panther fans were thinking of, as well as the opponent, but the players didn’t care, as they loudly cheered and danced in front of their faithful, taking in that they were indeed just one of 68 still standing.

The wait was finally over, as well as the fun. Now, the Panthers have to get back into focus as they prepare to begin what they hope is an extended trip to their already incredible season. As they all slowly filed out of the Gasthaus, some staying behind to mingle with family and friends, others giving some interviews to the media, the players walked out with not just the glow of accomplishment and attention, but also the fire of competition that had sustained them through their post-season.

They are in no mood to just settle for getting into the NCAA tournament. They want more, and with still nothing to lose, they’re ready to give Villanova all they can handle on Thursday; if they can’t beat the mighty Wildcats, giving them a scare and a big, kick-in-the-pants wake-up call can suffice. And if they somehow upset Villanova? Hey, they’ve been doubted before, and it has never bothered them. The Panthers have already thrown the local hoops world for a loop with their march to the Madness, an upset of a number 2 seed is not out the realm of not just possibility but probability.

But more than that, especially in the younger players, one can tell that this team won’t be resting on their laurels when the journey finally ends. They want to experience it again, and do even more than before. With fiery young players like Matt Tiby, JeVon Lyle, Austin Arians, and Cody Wichmann coming back, with even more rising stars coming as well, it can very well be so.

They want it. They want to have this become a yearly occurrence. They’ve shown Milwaukee that they are here, and now they want to show that they belong, that the Brew City is big enough for two college basketball powerhouses.

Become perennial NCAA tournament attendees? Now that, Panther Nation wants to know what it’s like.

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