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College Basketball in All Of Its Glory

There is something about college basketball that endears me to it more and more by the year. That something has been on full display over the last few months but specifically in the last week in the form of the Milwaukee Panthers.

In order to fully understand and appreciate the climb to the top of the Horizon League Tournament on Tuesday night, it is important to first understand where this program has come from in the last year. Once you fully realize how low things were a calendar year ago it makes the journey to the top that was culminated last night all the sweeter.

The Panthers record last season was 8 and 24. Their record outside of their home building was 1 and 17. They finished in last place in the Horizon League with a conference record of 3 and 13. They lost in the first round of the conference tournament at Green Bay by 16 points. Based off that finish the Panthers were predicted to finish in last place in the conference again this season.

The thing that is great about college basketball is that when the next season starts none of that matters. Each college basketball season, regardless of how the last one ended, follows the same process. The season starts with the Tip Off Marathon and continues through to the non conference season and ultimately into the conference season.

The greatness of college basketball is that it does not care about last years record or even this years predictions. Each season is a blank sheet of paper that the players and coaches are given to make the best artwork out of as possible. Each team is unique. Each team grows together in different ways over the season.

It was obvious from the beginning of this season that 8 and 24 was not going to be acceptable and allowed to happen again. The coaches wanted no part of it and the players wanted no part of it. With that being said, it was also evident from the early going of the season that neither the record of last year nor the prediction of this year were lost on either players or the coaches. They remained as the white elephant in the room that had to be gotten rid of. You could tell by the way team played the majority of the regular season that last years record and the prediction remained in the back of everyone’s mind. It served as the motivational chip and drive to a successful regular season.

The results were a noticeable difference. The Panthers had exceeded last years win total by the end of December. The Panthers won 10 nonconference games equaling the most of any Horizon League team and also setting a school record for non conference wins in a season.

The Panthers went up and down during their conference season but did manage to double their conference win total of last season. Their season however sat at a critical juncture on February 27th. That was the night of Panthers last regular season game. The Panthers entered the game losses of 4 straight, the last of those 4 being to a team that had had not won since December 17th. On top of that the Panthers were trying to win a game on the road without there leading scorer who was suspended for violating a team rule.

This is where another great aspect of college basketball showed itself in the Panthers season. It was at this point the Panthers faced a fork in the road, a fork that every college basketball teams faces. Their choice was to collapse under the adversity or come together and withstand the adversity and become stronger through the process.

The decision the Panthers collectively made is one of the true high points in covering this season for me. The Panthers came together as a team and as a family and fought to get themselves to March Madness together. One step at a time. One practice at a time. One game at a time. If they accomplished a series of small goals together the ultimate competition of the turnaround would also be accomplished together.

Without there best player, the Panthers won the final game of the regular season and they were able to secure a home game in the first round of the conference tournament and a 5th overall seed in the tournament. Still, the Panthers had a lot of work to do in order to be dancing since a team seeded lower then third had never won the Horizon League tournament in the current format.

One of the great things about March in college basketball is that you need to expect the unexpected and be totally prepared for upsets. In order for those upsets to occur a team must take care of ordinary things in order to make extraordinary things possible. The ordinary thing that the Panthers addressed was protecting their home court against Detroit in the first round.

By taking care of the ordinary, the Panthers were then given an opportunity at the extraordinary. The extraordinary was back to back games against Valpo and if the Panthers won that a shot at tournament top seed and host Green Bay.

The Panthers now were back to their normal line-up and rotation but more importantly the two wins over Detroit provided the team confidence that if it played together on both sides of the floor anything was possible. The Panthers confidence was furthered by the fact that they played their most complete game of the season to date and had won in Green Bay a few short weeks earlier.

In the semi-final against Green Bay, the Panthers trailed by four points with just over two minutes to play in regulation. Instead of folding, the Panthers displayed the resiliency a champion must demonstrate if they are going to get to the their ultimate goal. The Panthers made some plays on offense, got some critical stops and  rebounds on defense and ultimately forced overtime before emerging from Green Bay and into the championship game with a hard fought 73 to 66 victory.

The Panthers then went to Wright State and completed their worst to first turnaround by beating Wright State. The Panthers held the Raiders to 63 and used their defense to ensure the championship as their own offense went cold. This win clichéd the Horizon League automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the Panthers. In winning the tournament the Panthers defeated the #8, #4, #1 and #3 seeds.

The Panthers are going back to the dance for the first time since 2006 and that fact highlights another great thing about college basketball. The Panthers ticket is now punched in the same way schools like Kansas, Duke Wisconsin, and 60 plus others will be by the end of the weekend. March Madness is the great equalizer. It cares not about the size of your school or the name on the front of your jersey. Anyone with a dance ticket can stay as long as their performance dictates that they stay. That is why people across the country flock to TV’s and arenas. Over three glorious weekends people want to see college basketball in all of its glory and the best news of all is this year UWM has a ticket.

One Comment

  1. Dan

    March 15, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    Tim, I just want to echo a few of your thoughts regarding Milwaukee winning the Horizon League Tourney title and earning a trip to the Big Dance. I believe the Panther’s win against WSU on Tuesday was one of the biggest and most meaningful triumphs in the program’s history. Let’s go back to March 2, 2012. The Panthers had the opportunity to punch their ticket to the “Dance” at the Cell, but they looked as if the moment was way to big for them, and they suffered a painful 71-49 beating at the hands of the Butler Bulldogs. Then comes the horrendous decision to move back to the KC. As a true fan of the Black and Gold, I supported the move but then was forced to suffer through a miserable 8 – 24 season. The Panthers couldn’t have picked a worse time to fall on their faces game after game. Many season ticket holders didn’t renew because of the move to the KC – ticket prices remained the same and we also lost the opportunity to have a few cold ones at the games. For those of us who were left, we began to scratch our heads and wonder if the Panthers were worth the price of admission anymore. Thankfully the decision to move back to the Cell was made….but that came with a cost. Those of us who had premium seats now had to make a donation to the Athletic Department. That wasn’t a big deal in my eyes, but the vast majority of season ticket holders that sat behind me for fourteen years were now gone. The move back to the Cell brought back some excitement to a program that desperately needed a shot of positivity and enthusiasm. The play on the floor improved…from Kelm, to Aaron, to AA. Tiby and McWhorter were great additions, especially Tiby’s leadership and swagger. The team started out by playing well, and generated casual interest. The team was streaky in its play, and managed a successful 17 win regular season. They had a tough end to the season, but the Panthers gained some positive energy with a win over Detroit. Then came the tourney and the return of Jordan Aaron. Milwaukee started to roll, and picked up momentum and confidence with each victory. Then came the championship game. This game meant so much for the Men’s basketball program, the Athletic Department, and the University. I felt the pressure was on, but the stage was not too big for the Panthers this go around. They played hard, with a certain confidence we have not seen in almost 10 years. The rest is history. The program has received lots of much needed publicity and attention…generating interest throughout the Milwaukee area. The victory over WSU and a trip to “The Dance” should help recruiting and fan interest going forward. It also brings more attention to all of the other successful sports programs at Milwaukee, and to the University in general. I am just so excited about the future and a new era of exciting Panther basketball!! Great job Coach Jeter! Congrats to all of the staff members and players!! I’m very Panther Proud and look forward to seeing everyone tomorrow at the Gasthaus!!

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