Remember the magic

It always ends in a loss. As it has been for all mid-majors, so it goes for Milwaukee. The Panthers held their own for 30 minutes before succumbing to the Villanova Wildcats, 73-53 in front of a raucous crowd at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo on Thursday night.

It occurs to me as I write this that I had hoped to be driving somewhere between Buffalo and Milwaukee right now, part of a caravan of conquering heroes as we celebrated a team that bucked the odds and equaled the best this school has ever offered.  I don’t get to, and that’s unfortunate. But that shouldn’t mean that this NCAA Tournament should be any less special than those before it, or this team any less important to Milwaukee’s place in the college basketball zeitgeist.

In my time as a member of the Milwaukee Panthers community, I’ve marked this time of year as the special occasion where the naysayers come out of the woodwork, where people call for Rob Jeter’s job and a cleansing of the program in an attempt to regain the magic that they feel walked out the door with Bruce Pearl for Knoxville, Tennessee.

This year is different, for obvious reasons. After nearly a decade of defending this coaching staff and team to the fans whose expectations had been set impossibly high by a coach who couldn’t wait to leave, the naysayers are taking a break. Perhaps they realize they’d look ridiculous calling out a coach after making the NCAA Tournament in a fairly pedestrian season. Maybe they’re biding their time until next year, when they can pounce on that team if it doesn’t reach the Big Dance.

I sure hope that they are doing what I am doing, and that is appreciating the unique whirlwind season and the people who made it happen. I’ll remember a lot of things.  I’ll remember Jordan Aaron, a player who many including myself had criticized over his career, for the true story behind his drive and the dynamic scoring ability that has been so rare at this institution.

I won’t forget Malcolm Moore, who came back from crushing knee injuries to become a key cog in a tournament team. There was nothing more indicative of the type of player he was for us than the 90 seconds he played without a shoe, finishing it up by drawing a charge.

I’ll never forget Q, the kid with the perpetual smile who brought joy even to blowouts when he’d hit a basket. Or Bobo, who unfortunately never got to play a full career yet still gave us inspiring performances like the Davidson game.

Mitch Roelke is the consummate mid-major. Here’s a player who comes into the program without a D-I pedigree, then works his butt off and turns himself into a legitimate backup by the time he graduates. His threes saved games for this program. The definition of a “program guy.”

For me, I think there’s always going to be a special place for Kyle Kelm. My friends Bob and Jack and I spent a few days in Madison at the state tournament while Kyle led the Randolph Rockets to what I believe is their 72nd state championship.  It’s incredible to think that was only four years ago, but here we are. He leaves this program as a champion.

A lot of the time we forget as fans that the players who suit up for the program are people, and shouldn’t be used as a sounding board to vent frustration. I had all but given up on Kyle last season, during which the young man who had shown so much potential as a freshman looked lost as an experienced junior.

Sometimes we fans are so frustrated with the way things are going that we look for anything that may make sense and we fling crap at it hoping it sticks – we want to find some kind of explanation when things are going bad, some person or people to blame, and we lash out.

Kyle Kelm is a young man who has had to deal with a lot in his four years in college. For him to take all of it, turn it around and become the person he has become in such a short time? He could have left this program, but he never did. He stayed, he dug in and he left everything on that court in Buffalo. We can applaud Rob Jeter and his staff for developing Kyle Kelm as a basketball player, but all the credit for how he has taken body blow after body blow and come out a better man for it? That is all on #3. He is the embodiment of what Milwaukee Basketball is all about.

I remember writing in March of 2011 that there is no greater feeling than faith rewarded. I had a thought that this was the same feeling I wanted to convey tonight, but the truth is that I didn’t have much faith left in the tank that this could happen. Eight years is a long time to go without going to the NCAA Tournament, a stretch I hope this school never has to live through again. I wasn’t sure it would ever happen again just three weeks ago.

I guess this isn’t faith rewarded as much as it is validation for all of us who had made the choice to stick it out behind these coaches to the bitter end, whatever that end may be. It is certainly validation for Rob Jeter, a coach who has never been fully appreciated at this school and has never had the support his predecessor had and never could fulfill expectations of those who were giving neither appreciation or support. Trust me, it took a level of self control to keep myself from going onto the UWMFreak board and typing the simple post “EAT YOUR WORDS” after the championship game like I was Muhammad Ali.

There was no way I could have hit “Submit” on such a post. It didn’t feel right, sitting on the bus after we left the Nutter Center, total euphoria cascading over the entire fan base. This was a time for appreciation, to step back and admire the guts it took to take such an embarrassing spanking on Senior Night and then show up two weeks later to cut down the nets.

I wasn’t around in 2002-03, but I imagine it was not so dissimilar to this particular March. This is the greatest month of the year for a reason, and the run to the tournament then had to feel a lot like this run to the tournament in 2014.

Maybe this is the stepping stone to something greater. I sure hope so, that we realize what we have at our feet and understand the mistakes of our past and get it right, that we capitalize on the events of this March and move forward as a program to the future.

But that’s for another day. Those conversations can happen tomorrow. For right now, in this moment, I’m content to look back and appreciate this magic March.

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