Reading between the schedule lines

Come August and September every year, 350 or so Division I schools release their basketball schedules for the upcoming season. Fans often dive into them head first, comparing their schedules with those of rival teams. They’ll plan out their road trips. And they’ll see if this is the kind of schedule that will have the Selection Committee of the NCAA looking favorably upon them come March.

For much of his tenure as head coach of the Milwaukee Panthers, Rob Jeter has built a non-conference schedule that reads like one that will build the confidence of the team heading into the Horizon League docket. Whether or not the Panthers are headed to the Big Dance has almost entirely relied on winning the conference tournament – put all our eggs into that basket, and make a non-conference schedule to get the team ready for Horizon League leaders and make sure the team is in the right mindset to tackle the conference.

It’s a strategy that most mid-majors use. Catch lightning in a bottle, get into the tournament, knock some heads and make some noise as long as you can.

For the first time since I came to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (same as Rob Jeter, 2005), I feel as though the schedule was built specifically to give Milwaukee a good shot at an at-large bid should they lose the Horizon League Tournament in March – in scenic Detroit.

There are other things I see that aren’t apparent on the surface, but let’s dive in and talk about how this schedule is built to get the Black and Gold dancing.

Neutral site tournaments – The first thing you have to understand about scheduling is that in college basketball more than every other sport in America, the home team comes away victorious. The percentage fluctuates a little year-to-year, but generally 72% of the time, the home team is the victor. It’s why high-major teams are so reluctant to go on the road against tough opponents. Mid-major schools who have designs on going to the NCAA Tournament also are reluctant to play many true road games.

The Panthers have two in-season tournaments, playing in the Cable Car Classic at Santa Clara and the Gulf Coast Showcase in Fort Myers, Florida. The former doesn’t pit the Panthers against any heavy hitters, but the Gulf Coast Showcase is important because victories over Murray State and Pepperdine would be a big help to the non-conference resume. Duquesne, the low-level opponent on Milwaukee’s half of the bracket, is looking to have a better year than last as well – and in the Atlantic 10, a team can go from the 200’s to the 50’s in just a year. They have plenty of conference opportunities to boost their – and our – RPI.

How the tournament shakes out in the first two games decides who Milwaukee plays in the third. Winning both would pit them against likely finalists Western Kentucky or Central Michigan, either of whom would give Milwaukee a big boost if the Panthers come out on top. Losses in either or both of the first two games, and Milwaukee could find itself against Drake – bad but getting better – or worse yet, Weber State – bad and getting worse. Drake could find a few strong victories in the Missouri Valley and recover their RPI. Weber State is on the downswing and their RPI will only get worse as they step into the Big Sky.

The bottom line is that Milwaukee’s most important stretch just might be the week of Thanksgiving. Three victories would put the Panthers in a very good spot. It’s not out of the question for all three opponents to be in the top 100 of the RPI, and as many as two of them could settle inside the top 50. Conversely, three losses would all but punch the Panthers’ ticket for an NIT at-large bid at best.

Tough road games – Milwaukee playing at Wisconsin is nothing new; the Panthers only host the Badgers occasionally, something that I’ve shared my ire for plenty of times. The three high-majors are all difficult games, but none of them alone is a killer when it comes to the team’s at-large resume. Notre Dame will be the best of the bunch and the most difficult; winning that game would give the Panthers a huge head start over just about every other mid-major. The Selection Committee won’t just take into account a top 5 victory, but the fact that it is the fourth game in five days.

Losing on the road at Minnesota wouldn’t be a killer, since the strong Big Ten will keep them afloat. Beating them will add a likely Top-100 RPI victory in a schedule that will be hurting for as many of those as possible.

The Badger game is winnable; Milwaukee is only getting better, and Austin Arians – who would have been the team’s best player and number one scoring option a year ago – returns at full health. Meanwhile, the Badgers are losing more talent this off season than they’ve ever lost under Bo Ryan. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are very talented players, but the losses of Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser and Duje Dukan are going to force the Badgers to take time to adjust. Will they be ready for a Panthers team that’s had the game circled on the calendar for a year?

Favorable conference schedule – Jeter’s staff didn’t put together the conference schedule, but it’s hard to see the Horizon League doing better for the Panthers. I can’t remember the last time Milwaukee didn’t play a rivalry game during winter break. Milwaukee hosts Wright State and conference newcomer Northern Kentucky to open 2016. Those are very winnable games, and then the Panthers don’t play at home again until the first week of the new semester, when they take on Detroit, Oakland and Green Bay – all tough games – in front of the returning students. Traditionally, the first week of the spring semester is the second best time for student attendance after the first games of the year. Students are excited about being back, and the team could use the boost.

The Panthers do have a 22-day break in between home games, which is more than I’d like to see. But having that chunk on the road – and for a mostly winnable set of games, no less – allows the Black and Gold to close the Horizon League season with four straight home games. Those games against Cleveland State, Youngstown State and UIC worry me not one bit – and the Valparaiso game happens on a Friday night right when college basketball sees its fan base grow considerably in the ramp up to the NCAA Tournament.

The Valpo game, which will be televised on either ESPN2 or ESPNU, will be a huge game for students and will only be bigger if the Horizon League Title is still in play.

The schedule isn’t entirely beneficial for the Panthers. There are a few times in the conference schedule where the Panthers have three games in six days, as well as the aforementioned 22-day “road trip.” All-in-all, however, Milwaukee has a very strong Horizon League schedule, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it could play out beautifully. You know, unless the Panthers win the regular season title and then have to play Oakland or Detroit in the conference tournament in a de facto home game (seriously, I’d ask for whatever you were smoking if I was into that sort of thing).

Beyond the benefits of the schedule, there’s something else that sticks out to me – Milwaukee is very good, and other teams know it. In previous years, the Panthers have been able to get a couple decent mid-majors to give us home games. This year? Zip. Nada. No one is taking chances on the Panthers. Of the four non-conference home games, two are against schools that may or may not count Joel Osteen’s bibliography as mandatory reading, and the other two are return games from 2014-15 (SIU Edwardsville and South Dakota). Oh, by the way, SIUe and USD are going to be facing a team that is very pissed off at losing to them last season, so an undefeated non-conference home schedule might be a safe bet.

Even the two guarantee games were taken with caveats. Minnesota knows that home teams win more than even 72% in the week leading up to Christmas, and Notre Dame is so confident they’re better than Milwaukee that they won’t even play us unless we’re coming off a three-game set and one day of rest. I’m surprised they didn’t mandate the game be played Monday morning at 3 a.m.

Fans are going to be disappointed with some of the schedule. Seeing Judson up there again is going to annoy plenty, and some are going to be crying bloody murder when they see what level Trinity International plays at. But here’s the facts: both games will allow Rob Jeter to tinker with the lineup and get guys at the back end of the bench playing time. Both games are going to be 25+ point whippings that will carry some fun dunks and exciting, winning hoops. Most importantly, though, both games are against non-Division I opponents and therefore won’t count against the RPI.

Let’s face it – while non-D-I games aren’t a big help to the team from a competitive standpoint, we will be happy come February that Alex Prahl played 20 minutes in each of those games and is needed to spell his brother after Brett’s fourth foul against Valpo. Would you rather face Chicago State and Western Illinois? Those are schools you recognize. They’re schools we’ve played in the past. But teams like those are going to be easy victories all the same and they’re also going to tick you off when your RPI drops 30 spots on a day you haven’t even played because they lost to Southern Utah or some other most-likely-online university.

A lack of home games will hurt ticket sales. What will help ticket sales? Threatening for the Horizon League Title and being in the discussion for the NCAA Tournament come February. It’s time that Panthers fans understand the difficulty of scheduling. Hopefully, they’ll be able to see this schedule and get that it’s designed to get us where we want to be: winning.

2015-16 Milwaukee Men’s Basketball Schedule
Nov. 5 – PARKSIDE %
Nov. 13 – vs. Denver #
Nov. 14 – vs. Lipscomb #
Nov. 15 – at Santa Clara #
Nov. 17 – at Notre Dame
Nov. 23 – vs. Murray State $
Nov. 24 – vs. Duquesne/Pepperdine $
Nov. 25 – vs. TBA $
Dec. 9 – at Wisconsin
Dec. 13 – JUDSON %
Dec. 23 – at Minnesota
Jan. 7 – at Youngstown State *
Jan. 9 – at Cleveland State *
Jan. 14 – at Valparaiso *
Jan. 16 – at UIC *
Jan. 23 – DETROIT *
Jan. 25 – OAKLAND *
Jan. 29 – GREEN BAY *
Feb. 4 – at Wright State *
Feb. 6 – at Northern Kentucky *
Feb. 11 – at Oakland *
Feb. 13 – at Detroit *
Feb. 15 – at Green Bay *
Feb. 26 – VALPARAISO *
Feb. 28 – UIC *
March 5-8 – at Horizon League Championship (Detroit, Mich.)

* Horizon League game
# Cable Car Classic (Santa Clara, Calif.)
$ Gulf Coast Showcase (Estero, Fla.)
% game played at Klotsche Center

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