Panthers need to graduate and become full-time ass-kickers

After the final buzzer sounded Wednesday night, it took me about fifteen seconds to react. It was as if time had stopped, because my brain hadn’t yet processed the result of the game.

I mean, I know I saw Bronson Koenig take the shot. I saw him miss, saw Brett Prahl get the ricochet rebound and kick it away, falling down as time ran out. I saw the light on the scoreboard, heard the buzzer. I saw the bench clear onto the floor. But it was still a crazy finish to a crazy game. Milwaukee played poorly for most of the game. Wisconsin took care of business everywhere but the foul line. If the Panthers had played even an average game, it would have been a blowout.

Milwaukee played up to the occasion, not giving up even in a difficult road atmosphere. It’s time for the Panthers to play with that sense of urgency and aggressive mentality every night out.

Too often over the past ten years, however, Milwaukee has played flat and lost games against teams they should beat. IUPUI, SIUe, Western Michigan, the list goes on of lesser teams that have taken victories from the Panthers. I wish I could forget the eight-point half against UIC in 2014.

We have a very, very good team on our hands. Milwaukee is loaded with talent at guard, and despite being fairly thin in the post, the talent there is better than we’ve had in a decade. Anthony Hill didn’t have a running partner in the post. Matt Tiby and J.J. Panoske have got each other, and Wednesday’s game gave me great hope that Brett Prahl is finally going to start picking up some of the slack in the post. The redshirt sophomore was a great glue guy, and defensively he did beautifully.

The point is, we have talent. Not just to beat a Wisconsin team that is Sweet 16 caliber on the road, but to win the Horizon League. We can take it to Valparaiso, Oakland and every team. Past teams have had a tendency, however, to let other teams into games, teams that shouldn’t be on the floor with the Panthers.

For games against good teams, the Panthers have built comfortable leads and let them slip away by letting the teams back in it. They take their foot off the gas, and they’ve paid for it. Not just in past seasons: Milwaukee has two losses this season – against Murray State and Duquesne – where they had double digit leads that dried up. With Duquesne, they had a four-point lead they couldn’t hold onto in the last minute.

It’s not hard to make the argument that besides a couple minutes of fumbling games, the Panthers could be 9-1 right now. Their only for-sure loss this year was by eight points at then-No. 18 ranked Notre Dame.

Milwaukee has numerous tough games left this year. Minnesota and South Dakota are tough games. Oakland, Valpo and Detroit will be tough teams to beat. Green Bay is rarely a game that’s not competitive. The more the Panthers win, the more teams are going to play them tough.

That’s where the Panthers have gotten in trouble in the past. Trap games are killer for Milwaukee, and that is what has to change in 2015-16 for things to go the way of the Black and Gold.

For Milwaukee to realize their potential – and the ceiling is higher than it’s ever been since 2005-06 – they need to put their foot on the gas and finish teams off before Derek Rongstad comes in the game. They can’t get comfortable with any lead under 20.

The good news is, they’re built better than the past. In 2013-14, Jordan Aaron was tasked with doing the lion’s share of scoring. At any given time, Rob Jeter’s team has had 2-3 scorers that could go off for 20 on any given night.

For this season, Jeter has seven guys that could blow up – Matt Tiby, J.J. Panoske, Akeem Springs, Austin Arians, Jordan Johnson, Cody Wichmann and J.R. Lyle have all flirted with or surpassed 20 points in a game in the past. You’re never going to have a night when every player is firing on all cylinders, so it’s good to know that there’s always another option. It’s the reason you’re not seeing Milwaukee go on these incredible scoring droughts so customary of the Jeter era.

Wednesday night, it was Arians’ turn to have a cold shooting night. He went 1-for-12 from three, a ridiculously bad night for someone who has a green light from anywhere on the offensive side of half court. But Milwaukee weathered it, with Johnson and Tiby picking up the bulk of the scoring load. Lyle and Springs were each a bucket away from double digits. We turned our best shooter’s bad night into the first victory for the program in the Kohl Center.

For a long time, one of the biggest complaints about Jeter’s team is the long cold shooting stretches. That will happen when a lot of your scoring load is shared among at most three players. When your scoring load is shared by Ricky Franklin, James Eayrs and Tony Meier, two of three go cold and you can lose to a team you should beat. All three go cold and you have no chance.

This season, the Panthers are decimal points away from having five double-digit scorers. Going into the Badger game, Jordy Johnson was at 9.9 points per game. He’s up to 11.1 ppg, but Panoske’s low-scoring game dropped him under 10 to 9.8 ppg. Once McCloud gets up to speed, he may turn out to be another dangerous scorer – he did lead all scorers in the intrasquad scrimmage.

Milwaukee has a real chance to not only get into the NCAA Tournament, but make a run once they get there. There’s enough talent, and enough fight, to take advantage of any scenario. Enough bounces come our way, anything can happen.

An at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament may not happen. But that doesn’t mean the team needs to just set themselves up for a favorable Horizon League Tournament. Finishing in the top two guarantees a double-bye to the semifinals again this season. For most of coach Jeter’s tenure, he’s given quotes about getting the team to peak in March. That’s great, and we’ll need to do that again, but the Panthers have to avoid valleys that have plagued the program in the past decade.

Milwaukee could treat the rest of the season like they’ve treated the Horizon League in the past – do well enough to hopefully get a top-two seed and an easy road to the postseason.

It’s time to move beyond that. Win every game. Don’t accept that we will lose a bunch more games this season. Step out on the floor with the intention of destroying the other team.That doesn’t mean we are going to win every game. We just have to bring attitude, swagger and play with a chip on our shoulder no matter what game we’re in – a Sunday clip with Judson at the Klotsche Center, or the 2016 Horizon League Championship game. Milwaukee owned their role Wednesday night – they wouldn’t let the Badgers get away, and when they started crawling back the Badgers fans started to get into it. As Badgers all over the crowd got more anxious, more antsy, and started flipping out, the Black and Gold were feeding off of it.Negative road crowd reactions replenish our electrolytes. Milwaukee has always been a good team that can be in any game but lose any given night as well.

That rolled into Sunday, when the Panthers broke the school record for points in a game (125) and tied the assists record (32). Yes, it was tiny NAIA school Judson. But this is a game that just two years ago, in the Panthers’ last NCAA Tournament year, they won by 33 – this was a 51-point drubbing where the other team’s outside shooting was so good they seemed unconscious (seriously, Drew Makiewicz would be killing teams in the WIAC – his 7-for-10 from three on Sunday was better than a great 5-for-11 from outside he shot in the 2013 game).

Milwaukee did a great job responding every time Judson’s bombers hit 25-footers (they hit several; Makiewicz never touched the rim on his shots). There was no run, no point where Judson even threatened to make it look like it could be a game if they went on a spectacular run. This is no John Wooden UCLA team, but you still have to run your offense and defense and play well. It would have been easy for the Panthers to just coast, but they didn’t – they stepped on Judson’s throat and kept it going until the final buzzer sounded. It was cool to see guys like Derek Rongstad, Alex Prahl and Baylor Peterson get time on the court. A fan remarked to me when the C-squad took the floor that we probably wouldn’t have the firepower to break the school record, but they busted it open by eight.

At the end of the day, stepping on the gas is what this team needs to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s the next two games, both very tough games against a solid South Dakota team and on the road against a Minnesota team with plenty of horses, or against conference cupcakes like Youngstown State and Northern Kentucky. The Panthers have to play well every second of every game.

Mistakes will happen. It’s a part of the game. You’ll never have a game with zero turnovers and 100% shooting. But if you play well – do all the little things, like the sign in the locker room says – you can graduate from a good program threatening for the postseason and become one that expects to win every game.

The talent is there. History will decide how far, but the Panthers need to make sure they never let off the gas and leave us all wondering what could have been.Time to graduate. Time for Milwaukee to wear the cap and gown, collect our diploma, and take a full time job as the Horizon League’s resident ass-kickers.

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