Panthers head into the fire #RevengeWorldTour

Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.

We’re all hoping for a much different outcome than the one faced by those British soldiers in the Battle of Balaclava, but Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem strikes a chord with me as we head back to the Resch Center one more time tonight.

We’ll be far outnumbered. ¬†Phoenix to the right of us, Phoenix to the left of us, Phoenix in front of us. The runaway Horizon League Champions with the best player in the league and the most dominant man in the middle await us on their court. They’re rested, having had the week off as a reward for consistently being the best team on the floor over the course of a 16-game conference regular season.

And it doesn’t matter one bit.

Milwaukee is in their heads, and the Horizon League community knows it. Despite two games this week, the Panthers have fresh legs – the emergence of JR Lyle, who will be playing is seventh game as a key member of the rotation, has allowed Rob Jeter to weather the Jordan Aaron suspension and keep Steve McWhorter from being run ragged. Matt Tiby’s played 25 minutes or less in every game for almost a month, and it has showed in the fire he has brought in the tourney. Malcolm Moore was never overused in games and is in mid-season form.

On the other side of the scorer’s table is Green Bay, a behemoth of a team that is basically the same it was on Day 1, apart from a returning Alfonzo McKinnie from injury. They’ve run their last five opponents out of the gym and the whole program is hungry. They’re angry about being embarrassed in this same arena one month ago to the day. They’re bringing the kind of fire only a Phoenix can bring.

And it doesn’t matter one bit.

Milwaukee is playing with house money, the team with nothing to lose. That was never more apparent than when JR Lyle skied up for a fast break dunk, didn’t catch enough height, slammed the ball directly into the side of the rim, and it still careened into the basket. For a team to go from 8-24 to within shouting distance of the conference championship game and 20 victories is a successful season in and of itself. A loss tonight means the Panthers are probably still playing in either the CBI or CIT, which is the same if they win and lose Tuesday night.

Green Bay is in a different situation. The program has its best shot at the NCAA Tournament in almost 20 years. Alec Brown graduates this spring. Brian Wardle is likely gone to a big bag of money no matter the outcome for the rest of the season. The reason he’ll be gone is because the athletics program from the state’s 10th-largest UW institution is dead last in the conference in athletics budget and near the bottom in men’s basketball spending, only surpassing the football-playing YSU and Oakland, which hasn’t adjusted their budget for the move up in conferences as of yet. They’ll try to tread water with a new athletic director, as they lose Ken Bothof to Northern Kentucky last year. That hire was made specifically to get NKU into the Horizon League, but he raised a ton of money over the years to keep Green Bay afloat.

Of course, none of that matters tonight. But the Phoenix are desperate tonight. Without a victory they’re on the bubble come Selection Sunday, owners of a fantastic season and a would-be semifinal loss to the fifth-place team with a selection committee that isn’t exactly friendly to mid-majors. I would still put them in the tournament, but that’s just because I know how good they are.

Very good. It’s going to have to take a next-level performance from Milwaukee to topple the Phoenix in their home on national TV.

They’re up for it. No doubt about it. Question is, are you ready?

One Comment

  1. Dan

    March 8, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    The Panthers won’t win this game tonight if they only make a third of their shots, like they did last night. Thankfully Milwaukee just POUNDED Valpo on the boards, and won the turnover battle. It would be great to see a repeat performance of those efforts tonight. The Panthers won’t be intimidated, and hopefully the Milwaukee fans will make a lot of noise. The Panthers are streaky, and displayed the ability to play well over a series of games this season. I agree…nothing to lose here!! Play hard and play well….and we’ll all be watching the Panthers play on Tuesday.

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