Wednesday’s game is important for 2015 and beyond

At some point, it has to be about more than banging on the door. Eventually, you just have to knock the damn thing off its hinges and onto the floor.

Hagrid may have been a big oaf with his wand snapped in two, but that’s the image I have in my head. The Milwaukee Panthers have been a program that has been sort of banging on the door for awhile. The Sweet 16 of 2005 was amazing and three more NCAA Tournament appearances have made the past decade and change a great time to be a Panthers fan. But it’s always seemed like the program could, and should, strive for more. Perhaps it’s not so much a door as a glass ceiling.

On the other side of the glass, of course, is the Wisconsin Badgers. Their rise to prominence came right about the same time as Milwaukee’s rise among mid-majors. The program used to average 5,000 fans per game in the 90’s, and the construction of the Kohl Center spurred them on to great heights. Bo Ryan’s departure from the east side was the seminal point of both programs’ rise – while they did reach the Final Four in 2000, I don’t consider Wisconsin’s dominance started until Bo Ryan became coach. Leaving Milwaukee cleared the way for Bruce Pearl to bring in his unique style, turning the Panthers from an afterthought to a true player on the national stage.

That time, though, was brief. In this state, it has been overshadowed ever since, with the state’s flagship program enjoying its golden years uninterrupted since Bo Ryan came aboard.

At Milwaukee, for all of our strengths – size of the school, success in a good mid-major conference – we still flounder in the collective mind of our own community. Wisconsin is the end-all, be-all of college sports to the wide majority of Milwaukeeans. They even eclipse Marquette, the local high-major private school with a Final Four in the not-too-distant past and one of the highest basketball budgets in Division I.

For many college basketball fans, the game on the court is all they need. As long as the Panthers are entertaining, many of our fans are content. A large number have not been happy, however, and there are several reasons for that. Some miss Bruce Pearl’s bombastic personality, or his team’s “UWM Press” that created a hectic atmosphere for opponents. Others are not thrilled with Rob Jeter’s success, unwilling to accept that a couple of Jeter’s best teams had to run up against the best squad in Horizon League history. Others still want success no matter who the coach is, and expected that the 2005 trip to the Sweet 16 would have either been replicated or eclipsed by now. Whatever their reasons, people who consider themselves fans of the Milwaukee Panthers have largely gone away since the program averaged 5,300 in 2005-06. Three postseason appearances in the past five seasons haven’t brought them back, and the Black and Gold are stuck in something of a rut, averaging less than 3,000 fans per game and only 1,900 this season (albeit with only two regular season home games thus far).

The Panthers have been fairly good, but the fans seem to only show up to the Panther Arena when Milwaukee is hosting one of the in-state high-majors. That definitely has to do with the level of competition, to be sure, but also with the fact that the average Milwaukee sports fan doesn’t seem to take the Panthers seriously.

Flip your calendars to December 9th, 2015.

Wisconsin is the darling of the local college sports fan. An entire generation of college students don’t remember when UW Athletics was the laughingstock of the Big Ten. The Sweet 16, still Milwaukee’s greatest achievement to date, was overshadowed by Bucky’s trip to the Elite Eight.

The Panthers have a great team, perhaps the best in Rob Jeter’s eleven years at the helm. They are thin up front but loaded in talent with the best post forward Milwaukee’s had since Adrian Tigert in Matt Tiby and a center in J.J. Panoske who is finally realizing his potential as a post player. In the backcourt, the Panthers are more loaded than they’ve ever been. Ever. Akeem Springs, Jordan Johnson and J.R. Lyle can each light the world on fire. Adding in freshman transfer JayQuan McCloud, who played AAU with Springs and Johnson, is only going to make the guards more dangerous. Austin Arians and Cody Wichmann can score from anywhere beyond the arc, and Arians cuts to the basket better than just about anyone in the Horizon League.

And yet, Milwaukee has major difficulty getting acknowledgement from the local fans.

The Panthers could have another Sweet 16 team on their hands, and Milwaukeeans may not know it until they’re already there. That makes it difficult to create the kind of momentum that will carry on into future years. The casual college sports fan isn’t interested in Youngstown State. They are interested in Wisconsin. Beat the Badgers, and you have the attention of that sports fan for the rest of the season.

Milwaukee athletic director Amanda Braun voted to give up the possibility of hosting the conference tournament over the next five years, a tourney that has brought by far the biggest Panther home sporting events. What’s done is done, but the Panthers don’t have that home tournament in the cards now. They have to win.

If the Panthers want the program to make it to the next level, they have to have fans. If they want to have fans, they have to win – and not just any game, but the big ones. Beating Notre Dame would have been nice, but the casual college hoops fan in Milwaukee doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the Fighting Irish. Beat Wisconsin, however, and they can’t help but pay attention, and will want to hop on the bandwagon.

Milwaukee’s future is tied to its perception of itself. Should the team lose Wednesday night, no one on campus will bat an eye; in the UWM community’s opinion, this is largely how the pecking order is supposed to be. The Panthers are trying to build a program on a campus that celebrated in the streets when Wisconsin won a trip to the Final Four.

That’s a tall task. But it’s a worthy one; Milwaukee is a sleeping giant. With nearly 30,000 students, the university is the size of a Big Ten school. More Wisconsinites learn here than any other school, including Wisconsin. More Wisconsinites stay here after graduation than any other school, including Wisconsin. The school’s research can light the future of the world, but growth in that area is under threat from fiscal conservatism in the statehouse. The university needs to find new revenue, and donations can help keep this university moving forward.

Donations to academics are dependent on fickle donors. We can’t choose what people care about, but we do know what they care about: sports. College athletics, forever the enemy to the isolated academic, can help drive donations to the university in a way that absolutely nothing else will. You know, short of starting a law school or medical school, or curing cancer – all things that aren’t even remotely possible in the face of budget cuts.

Ten thousand people didn’t show up to watch my sister defend her thesis to the Anthropology department. They did show up, however, to see Joah Tucker and the Panthers destroy Butler in 2006.

Basketball is marketing, something that the academic side of this university always seems to conveniently forget. They don’t want to admit that enrollment is driven by hoops. Butler’s Final Four runs were worth over a billion dollars in free marketing to their university. Applications went through the roof. Marquette’s budget problems of recent years absolutely have to do with the fact that every year they get further from the Final Four, the tighter donors are with their purse strings. But you don’t have to go to Indianapolis, or even across town to see the effect of college basketball success.

When I was a senior at Nathan Hale High School in West Allis, UWM had roughly 26,000 students. The selectivity rate, or the number of students who apply who are accepted to the school, was 92%. Pretty much anyone who wanted to go to school here could, and we didn’t have much. and then something happened late in my senior year.

Milwaukee went to the Sweet 16. When I got on campus, I was part of the last class of high schoolers who had largely picked their colleges before that run in March 2005. Fast forward three years, and UWM was pushing 32,000 students, with selectivity rate down to 65%.

In just a few short years, a lot more people wanted to be on the East Side for college, so much so that we added roughly 6,000 students to enrollment (more students than Butler has) despite the fact that UWM was far more selective.

What happened? A slick marketing campaign doesn’t add that many students. UWM added no schools; the Schools of Public Health and Freshwater Sciences weren’t approved until later. The Riverview Dorms opened, but that’s only 470 students, and since a higher percentage of freshman stayed in campus housing, it’s impact to overall enrollment was probably minimal. So what happened?

Prospective students knew about us, and it was because we won games in the NCAA Tournament in back to back years. Potential donors knew about us, and it was because of what we did on the hardwood, not in the classroom.

The academics at UWM need to understand that this is O.K. Academics is still why we come here, research is still a big part of our mission. Our alma mater is incredibly important to the southeast Wisconsin region, and it’s not going to realize its potential until the region takes it seriously. The region can’t take the university seriously if we can’t stay in front of their noses, and basketball is how we do that.

In recent years, the university has scaled back. We’re down to 28,000 students and an 88% acceptance rate. The Sweet 16 is ten years in our rear view mirror, and with a smaller amount of total college age people in Wisconsin today than before, marketing is paramount. But marketing shouldn’t be billboards, commercials and newspaper ads. How many advertisements for the University of Wisconsin do you see out there that aren’t near campus or attached to sports broadcasts?

There’s a great satire university commercial for the fictional Quendelton State University that has been on for about eight years. It used to highlight us to a T, but over the years we’ve gotten better at being a traditional university. The best line in the video is at the end, when the actor in a cap and gown accepts his diploma and says “If we were a real university, we wouldn’t have a commercial.”

He’s damn right. You know what real universities have? Sports. Big time sports. Sports are the marketing arm of the university, and since men’s basketball is the only true revenue sport we have, we need to put our chips where they’ll do the most good.

But men’s basketball needs to be successful. If they’re going to start a snowball for real, where we go from 2,000 to 3,000 to 5,000 to 10,000 fans per game, the Panthers need to win. And they don’t need to just win NCAA Tournament games or Horizon League Championships. They need to prove they belong on the same level as the high-majors in this state, including and especially the University of Wisconsin.

It’s time we stop believing that we’re the distant second fiddle, accepting our annual beating at the hands of the Big Ten beast. It’s time that we rise up, put them in their place and use the scoreboard to declare our place at the table.

It’s time for Milwaukee to become what it’s always been meant to be – the driving force of southeast Wisconsin, lifeblood of the local economy and chosen institution of higher learning for Milwaukee’s youth. Basketball isn’t going to do it, but it’s a great place to start.

We need the region to take us seriously. Let’s start with the basketball team. Let’s start Wednesday night.

We belong.

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