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Upcoming road trip crucial for the Panthers

 

The Milwaukee Panthers begin a five game road trip as they travel to Dayton to face Wright State Thursday night. This road trip will feature five games in just 11 days. While every conference game, and certainly every extended road trip, is important at this stage of league play, the impending road game stretch for Milwaukee could prove to be a turning point for the season. This upcoming trip will essentially determine how the Panthers finish in the Horizon League regular season standings. It also gives Milwaukee the opportunity to control their own destiny in securing the all-important Horizon League Tournament double bye, awarded to the teams that finish first and second in regular season standings.

After playing Wright State, Milwaukee will head to Northern Kentucky, Oakland, Detroit, and finally Green Bay. Both Oakland and Wright State hold tiebreakers over Milwaukee as of now, so despite all three teams having three conference losses, they are two and three in the standings respectively. Both of these games provide great opportunities for Milwaukee to move up significantly in the standings.

Northern Kentucky and Detroit have shown flashes of potential throughout the season. NKU is playing better basketball after going 0-3 to start league play, as they are 4-3 since their poor start. Largely riding the strong play by Jalen Billups, and the emergence of Freshman big man Drew McDonald, the Norse are no longer a team that can be overlooked. Sandwiched between big games against Wright State and Oakland, Milwaukee will have to do their best not to succumb to a classic “trap game” scenario when squaring off against NKU. Detroit is coming off of a big win against Wright State, and has the talent, length, and athleticism to give any Horizon League team trouble, which was evident as they took the Panthers to the brink in Milwaukee just a few weeks ago. The road trip will end when Milwaukee visits the Resch Center to face Green Bay, which promises to be a tightly contested track meet, just as it was last week at UW Milwaukee Panther Arena.

This road trip is important for a few reasons. First, three of the five games are against teams either directly above, or just a game below Milwaukee in the standings. This gives the Panthers a unique opportunity to distance themselves from three teams competing heavily for a top-2 league finish, and the reward of a double bye. Conversely, it also means Milwaukee could effectively bury themselves if they do not play well over these next five games. Poor play over the next five games would send the Panthers plummeting down league standings, greatly hurting their chances of winning the HL Tournament, and earning an NCAA Tournament berth.

Second, all of these games are winnable. Each matchup will most likely result in a hard-fought, close game, but there truly isn’t a game on this road trip where Milwaukee shouldn’t be expected to come out on top. Wright State beat Milwaukee to open league play, but the Panthers played a terrible game and still almost won in overtime. While the Raiders play great team defense, Milwaukee is the more talented team and should be able capitalize on Wright State’s poor play as of late and secure a victory at the Nutter Center. Northern Kentucky has shown flashes of playing good basketball, especially recently, but the Panthers already have a victory over the Norse under their belt, and are clearly the better basketball team this year. Oakland has been a model of inconsistency in league play, but the Golden Grizzlies have seemingly hit their stride with very impressive play over the last few weeks. That being said, they give opponents a lot of good opportunities with their porous defense, and Milwaukee now has a healthy Akeem Springs to hopefully slow down the three point barrage being unleashed by Max Hooper in. If Akeem Springs was available in the game against Oakland on January 25th, I think it results in a Panther victory.

The Panthers exploited an undisciplined Detroit team in their first matchup with the Titans, and if Jordan Johnson stayed out of foul trouble Milwaukee likely would’ve won that game with relative ease. They should be able to frustrate Detroit yet again when they had to Calihan Hall, and come out with another victory. Finally, the Phoenix of Green Bay always present a challenge with their frenetic style of play and aggressive pressure, however the Panthers played a below average game against them last Friday and managed to come out on the winning end. At the end of a long, difficult road trip this game won’t be easy, but this is yet another winnable matchup for Milwaukee.

Obviously the Panthers could just as easily lose any of these games, and my off the cuff analysis of each opponent is hardly a predictor of what the outcomes may be, but the point is that Milwaukee has a really good opportunity on this upcoming road stretch to put themselves in an extremely strong position entering the final weeks of league play.

A sweep of this five game road trip would all but guarantee the Panthers a top two regular season finish, and a double bye in the conference tournament. This double bye is something that is uncommon for leagues with as few teams as the Horizon League, and it places the two recipients directly into the semi-finals, where they each face a team playing its third game in as many days. This is a huge advantage, and one that has proved extremely important since 2003 when the current format was introduced. Since then, the number one and number two seeds have squared off in the championship game eight of a possible 13 times. Essentially, if Milwaukee finishes in the top two of league standings and earns a double bye, they will most likely have a chance to play in the championship game with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line.

All hope is not lost, however, if the Panthers have a bad road trip, limp towards the finish of league play, and receive a middle of the pack seed in the Horizon League Tournament. We all remember the 2014 tournament when 5th seeded Milwaukee went on a magical run and eventually upset 3rd seeded Wright State to take the postseason championship. That being said, Milwaukee deserves better. They deserve to sweep this upcoming trip and have a firm grasp on the number two seed when they return home to play Cleveland State on February 20th. Not only do they deserve it, they have the tools to achieve it. The Panthers have their most talented team in years, full of veteran leaders who have put in four years of hard work, as well as young, exciting players who have gelled in their new roles with the team. A great opportunity presents itself over the next few weeks and the Panthers need to pounce on it. It’s time to emerge from the inconsistent play shosn thus far in Horizon League games and become rightfully cemented at the top of league standings.

An NCAA Tournament appearance is a realistic possibility this season, and the race to achieve it starts right now. Go Panthers.

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