PantherU

Amanda Braun is essentially Rachel Phelps from Major League

For the past few seasons, close friends and I supporting the men’s basketball program at Milwaukee have had a hard time keeping our mouths shut. As you can imagine, it’s harder for me to keep my mouth shut than others.

You see, since Bud Haidet retired in 2009, Milwaukee Athletics has had a revolving door to the office of the athletic director.

First it was George Koonce. Then it was Dave Gilbert, in an interim role while the university set up another search. Then it was Rick Costello. After he flamed out, new chancellor Mike Lovell sought the help of Jon LeCrone, who brought us Andy Geiger, who might have had the most destructive tenure of the three. He was followed, of course, by current athletic director Amanda Braun.

It was apparent to us, early in her tenure, that either she didn’t understand basketball or she was actively trying to hurt Rob Jeter’s program. Sure, people will complain about certain restrictions on the team from time to time, but I like to see with my own eyes before I make judgments.

Of course, when a basketball player decides it’s time to speak out publicly, my silence really doesn’t matter anymore.

Akeem Springs has opened the floodgates. And I am the flood.

The first real indication I got was the 2013-14 trip to UMKC, when redshirt players were not allowed to travel with the team. Redshirts at almost all high-major and mid-major programs travel with the team, especially on trips that involve overnight stays. The reason being is this – players are technically eligible, so a coach can decide to pull the redshirt at any given time. But even if they never get in the game, those players are present for several practices – practices that are all they have in their redshirt year to get better at basketball.

So when the team is at UMKC and we see the Prahl twins bumming around campus, what does that say about the program? It says that the athletic director is unwilling to do even the bare minimum to ensure those players develop on the court during those trips. One fan who is a retail manager in the area saw redshirt freshman Jeremy Johnson this weekend in his store while Johnson’s teammates were playing in the Horizon League Tournament. He missed the whole weekend of practices.

The Panthers play many road games. Over the course of the year, how many practices do those players miss? Fans wonder why some players don’t develop – well you have to be present to develop, and if the athletic director is not willing to send you on the trip, your development as a basketball player is not a priority to them.

Every four years, the men’s basketball program is allowed to take a foreign trip during the summer which allows for a bunch of practices and five games against foreign teams for them to hone their craft. Valparaiso did it this summer. Milwaukee did it in the summer of 2010, in that awesome trip to Italy.

That trip was paid for by donations from supporters of the program. Some of the contributions were small, some were very large. But the university didn’t have to pay for the trip, as it was fully funded by donations. The donors who foot the bill include some of the biggest donors of the university, a few of them even reaching millions of dollars donated over time to not just athletics but the academic programs that serve our mission.

The Panthers got much better from that trip, and how did they do during the season? They won the 2011 Horizon League Championship for the regular season, going to the NIT and the first postseason since 2006.

As I said, the team is allowed to do one every four years, and the basketball team was slated for another summer foreign trip this past summer. Players who had committed to the program were told that the trip was going to happen, yet Rob Jeter and his program never left the country. More on this later.

Scheduling has become increasingly difficult for mid-majors, especially decent-to-good mid-majors. What had been a hard job is now nearly impossible, because schools won’t play your team if they think there’s a chance you’ll beat them, or that a victory against you won’t help them come Selection Sunday. Valpo found this out the hard way this season, as the Crusaders could only get road games with Oregon and Oregon State as part of a tournament.

Elite mid-majors can get teams to play them because the chance of them having a high RPI regardless of the outcome of the game is good – this means teams are more willing to take a chance if it won’t hurt them in the end.

Milwaukee is not an elite mid-major, not yet – so the Panthers were only able to get Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Minnesota on the schedule this season. Wisconsin is an annual game, obviously, but Notre Dame and Minnesota are one-off games, which means you won’t be seeing either team at Panther Arena next season.

To make it worth our while, Notre Dame and Minnesota both paid the university a sum of money to play the game. This is what’s called a “buy” game or “guarantee” game, in which the team paying the money hopes to essentially schedule a victory for their team. Notre Dame scraped by with an eight-point victory, helping Mike Brey’s team grow and develop with a difficult game rather than an easy victory in which the players roll but learn nothing. Minnesota got spanked by the Panthers, but Richard Pitino’s players got to see Big Ten-style players like Matt Tiby and J.J. Panoske in preparation for their conference season.

Generally, guarantee games will give your fans more home games, and your team games in which they are challenged but should win going away. It’s a win-win for both programs, as the home team gets a game (and usually a win) in their building without having to return to the road. The road team gets a check and hopefully the chance to knock off a team.

There is a downside to taking ‘buy’ games, however. The more you take, the harder it is for your team to gain traction and get better as a program every year. Home teams win in college basketball more than any other sport, with college football not far behind. There are plenty of reasons as to why this is true, but generally you want to play as many home games as possible to set up your program to get better – more home games=more victories. One needs only to look across town to Marquette, a school that has made a habit of playing as many guarantee games as possible.

The perception of teams who take lots of guarantee money is that they’re lesser programs – which is true to a point. These teams are playing the guarantee games to fund their athletic department, and in turn are putting off their own growth and advancement. Look to a program like Presbyterian, a school that plays many guarantee games a year. The team pays for a lot of the costs of the program by doing so, but the program doesn’t get better.

Milwaukee, as it turns out, has been on the receiving end of guarantee games more often than not. In fact, we’ve only hosted one Division I team in a “guarantee” game, the December 2011 beat down of Omaha. The Panthers only have the one guarantee game in their history.

The Panthers are set to play more “guarantee” games in the future, to help pay for the cost of the program. But the program will spin its wheels, as guarantee game victories like Minnesota this season are few and far between – most of the time you’re going to be scheduling losses. This is not something any coaching staff wants to do, as it hurts their ability to achieve program goals.

Playing games, of course, are at least a bit helpful in any situation. You still get game experience, the players still get the fun of travel, and the ball club just gets better. So when the CBI and CIT – two of three third-tier postseason tournaments – invite the program to play, it stands to reason that the university will play in these games.

Only three players will be graduating this year – Matt Tiby, JJ Panoske, and JR Lyle. The rest of the team can grow and develop, and playing in the CBI or CIT (or the new Vegas 16) should allow the university the chance to get more development for those players for the future. Teams like Wright State and Oakland in our conference have used these postseason tournaments in the past to build their program, and they finished 2nd and 3rd this season in the Horizon League. Outside of the conference, VCU followed a CBI championship in 2010 with a Final Four in 2011. Some of the best mid-major programs in America have played in these postseason tournaments, and good high-majors have played in the CBI and will play in the Vegas 16.

When the time came to vote on moving the Horizon League Tournament from the on-campus double-bye format to Detroit, Braun was one of the seven ‘yes’ votes. The move made sense for plenty of conference members – Milwaukee was not one of them. When the time came for the basketball team to be sent on that trip, the Panthers had to load up on a coach bus, like the band, cheerleaders and dance team.

A school that doesn’t yet have a practice facility needs anything it can get in recruiting to make up for the lack of facility. One of the ways Milwaukee has mitigated that problem in recruiting is by telling recruits of travel. Under Jeter, like it was under Bruce Pearl and Bo Ryan, the basketball team travels by plane if it’s outside a couple hours’ drive. They stay in good hotels. They eat decent meals. It’s how you get past the fact that your basketball team gets kicked out of practice by the ultimate frisbee team. Jordan Aaron, the 2014 HLT MVP, cited the travel as a reason he committed to Milwaukee.

So why is the basketball team taking the trip to Detroit by bus, especially when fellow UW school Green Bay – with an athletics department budget a fraction of Milwaukee – is taking a plane? It’s simple – in squeezing the budget for the program, Braun is squeezing men’s basketball a lot more than all the other programs – teams that produce little-to-nothing in terms of revenue and have no chance of doing so in the future. That’s not a knock on those teams – they’re all great, and no one can come to me and tell me I don’t support our non-revenue sports. I’ve tailgated at track meets and swim meets, people. It’s just an acknowledgement of the truth – men’s basketball is the bell cow, and the future of the department relies on the income of men’s basketball.

Amanda Braun’s tenure has been a perplexing one for men’s basketball. We’ve heard her publicly talk about how the men’s basketball program will achieve its goals, yet: redshirts miss dozens of practices; the team is forced into playing more “buy” games; she said ‘yes’ to a Horizon League Tournament move that hurts our program; won’t help the team fix their practice situation in the mean time before the practice facility comes; takes away the way they travel, which helps in recruiting; declined the postseason invites for a team that won 20 games, something the school has done only a handful of times in 120 seasons.

So when some parents of players sent Braun an e-mail pleading with her to allow this team the chance to send their boys to the postseason, where they can continue to get better and represent our school on national television, she sent a response. Of course, they didn’t find her response satisfactory, because it found its way to my inbox:

Parents,

I appreciate you reaching out and advocating for Player 1, Player 2 and their teammates and understand that you are disappointed with the way the men’s basketball season ended and with my decision about postseason participation. I take very seriously my decisions that impact the lives of our student-athletes and want to share with you how I came to the decision to not enter the CBI or CIT men’s basketball events. 

First, it is important to share with you that all of the decisions regarding our sport programs are driven by our program goals and how we define success. Decisions are also heavily influenced by financial considerations and the responsible use of our resources. And finally, the experience of our student-athletes is always a top priority in every decision we make. 

For our men’s basketball program, our goal every year is to be a top 100 NCAA Division I program. Specific to our conference, our goal is to win the Horizon League and our expectation is to finish among the top three in the Horizon League on an annual basis. These are very realistic goals and expectations because we financially support the program at the top of league.  

As you know, this year men’s basketball did not achieve the competitive goals or expectations for the program.  The team will not be selected for the NCAA or NIT tournaments and our option with a fifth-place finish is to participate in events that are not aspirational for our program.  Because of this, it is difficult to justify participation in the CBI and CIT events and the financial commitment required for them.  

As I weighed the program goals and the use of our resources, I also considered our student-athletes’ experience. More impactful experiences for the team are events such as a summer foreign tour and exempt tournaments during the regular season similar to those we have participated in recently (Cable Car Classic, Gulf Coast Showcase, MGM Grand Main Event). We will continue to direct our resources to these more positively impactful events as we elevate our men’s basketball program and work to achieve our goals. 

Even though we did not attain our competitive goals this year, we are extremely proud of the accomplishments of our men’s basketball student-athletes. The work the team has done in the classroom this year, compiling a program-best 3.104 grade-point average in the Fall 2015 term, along with the work they have done in the community, is truly commendable.

I understand if this news is difficult for you to accept and hope that the information I have shared is at least somewhat helpful to you. Thank you again for taking the time to reach out.  

Sincerely,

Amanda

Go Panthers!

Amanda Braun

Director of Athletics

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

______________________

Let me first say this: I have no problem with setting goals for the program. Wanting the team to finish in the top 3 of the Horizon League, and the top 100 of the nation, are both achievable, strong goals. You want the program to have goals, because you never want anyone to get complacent.

That said, this is not a consequence of not achieving your goals. This is a consequence of the athletic director not wanting the basketball season to continue to make a point. That point seems to be, “you didn’t reach top 3 or top 100, so no soup for you.”

That’s a stupid point to make. The goal of the program is to make the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t accept an invitation to the NIT. So why is it true at the next level down the ladder?

The basketball team should have goals, but the fact of the matter is right there, in black and white, Amanda Braun says that she turned down invites to the CIT and CBI. How can the athletic director say that the basketball team isn’t good enough to play in the postseason when the postseason itself is coming to us and asking us to be a part of it?

Each of these tournaments has a selection committee, and these committees have deemed the basketball team good enough to be a part of their field.

All of this seems, while unfair, at least somewhat acceptable. Until you see the smoking gun. Braun used two reasons as to why she was turning down the invites to the postseason – level of play (they want us, so we’re good enough), and money.

“Decisions are also heavily influenced by financial considerations and the responsible use of our resources,” says Braun in the second paragraph. Which makes sense, when the university is part of a system getting squeezed out of $250 million by the state legislature while also being shut away from raising tuition to make up even part of the cuts.

Except what if the university wouldn’t have to pay for it? What if Braun knew that the athletic department wouldn’t need to pull money from its budget to pay for the trip?

It’s true. A couple athletics donors, who I will not name, came forward to tell the university that they would cover the costs for the basketball program to take this trip to the postseason. So despite what Amanda Braun told the parents of our players, donors offered to pick up the bill for this – specifically this. Is it a responsible use of our resources if we’re not using our resources? Are they really our resources if the donors won’t give the money over for other uses, but they will for this?

Which brings something else to mind. Braun said these postseason tournaments wouldn’t benefit the team (wrong) as much as a summer foreign trip or an in-season tournament. Casting aside the laughable assertion that an in-season tournament like the Cable Car Classic (190, 250, 268 RPI opponents) would be better than a sudden death postseason tournament against postseason teams, Braun says that a foreign trip would be better for the team.

As I said earlier, the Panthers could have made a foreign trip this past summer. They didn’t, with Braun making the decision, citing state money issues. But other state schools have made foreign trips, and there’s one more thing.

These same donors, who have offered to fund the postseason trip, also offered to pay for the summer foreign trip. So it wasn’t ‘state money issues’ but rather ‘I’m not spending private money, donated for this reason, on you.’

It’s cruel and unusual.

This all seemed familiar to me. The AD, holding the purse strings, pulling everything possible from the basketball team, taking away things like a plane and replacing them with a bus.

Then it hit me. Amanda Braun is essentially Rachel Phelps, the fictional owner of the Cleveland Indians in the movie Major League. I half-expect that Springs will walk into the locker room and find a metal tub with a ratty old boat motor.

This never hit me harder than it did last month, when three fans approached me separately at Major Goolsby’s following our victory over Cleveland State. The fans, who don’t even know each other, each told me about something from the loss at Green Bay earlier in the week.

The Panthers, who had been down by 14 at one point, stormed back to take the lead. Green Bay followed with a timeout, and Panther fans rejoiced together. But each of these guys, high-fiving different fans, had noticed Amanda Braun. Why did they notice her? One said she looked grumpy. Another said she looked angry. The last one said it looked like things weren’t going her way.

Maybe she was having a bad day. We all have them. Maybe she was sick, or thinking about something else. Or maybe things actually weren’t going her way, because the basketball team was winning in a game they needed to win.

All I know is after the Badger victory, she was nowhere to be found. I tried to find her afterwards to give her a high-five, but she had disappeared quickly after the buzzer and wasn’t in the concourse when the team came out to celebrate with fans half an hour later.

I can count on one hand the amount of times in three seasons I’ve seen her at Major Goolsby’s, where dozens and sometimes hundreds of Panthers fans experience the bliss of victory and the agony of defeat. These are her constituents, fans who could be wooed into opening up their pocketbooks.

The real victims in this? The players. Fans and coaches can get over it. But these players only have ONE college basketball career. These players, specifically, are being told they won’t be allowed to play in the postseason when they weren’t allowed last season through no fault of their own.

The players on this basketball team in the last two seasons had nothing to do with last season’s APR ban that kept the Panthers out of the postseason.

Despite that, they didn’t leave. These players stuck around, won 20 games this season and got knocked out at the end by the team representing the Horizon League in the NCAA Tournament. These players have broken the record for team GPA three semesters in a row, but for some reason they are not worthy of continuing to play? When the postseason tournaments want them to play?

These players passed on transferring, on quitting basketball. They continued playing, and they played hard. JR Lyle played so hard he hurt his arm and might not be able to play anyways (he would, make no mistake). JJ Panoske played so hard he fouled out, and after that the Phoenix were able to pull away. And Matt Tiby, the most passionate and emotional player we’ve ever seen put on our uniform, played so hard he could barely contain himself when the game was over.

It’s an absolute travesty that this program’s success hinges on one game in March. Win the Horizon League Title game, and we succeed. Lose in the conference tournament, and we fail. That’s a lot to hang on a group of kids, especially when they did everything they needed to do except win a couple games.

Here or there, the Panthers were one or two possessions away from winning all but five of their games this season. That’s not “failing to reach goals,” that’s an incredibly bad run of luck. It’s not just a line; KenPom.com puts Milwaukee 329th in the country for “Luck,” meaning that this was one of the unluckiest teams in college basketball.

You want the team to get better. The CBI and CIT offer opportunities to play postseason games and get better.

You wanted the team to do better in the classroom. They’re giving you a 1000 APR score and record team GPA’s.

They’re better than this. They deserve to keep playing.

The coaches want to play. The players want to play. The fans want to play. The postseason tournaments want them. The donors are willing to foot the bill.

Let them play.

_______________________________

Here’s the thing, though, fans. You don’t have to let this decision be made unilaterally by Amanda Braun. There is still time for the program to reverse course and accept one of these invitations.

Please, tweet @MarkMone and tell him you want the Panthers to #ProwlOn. You can also go to this web page and leave your thoughts in a more formal setting if you don’t have Twitter.

Speak up. Your voice matters.

_______________________________

By the way, recruits look to the university athletics website for information on the program. At the posting of this piece, MKEPanthers.com is down. Looks like PantherU is where you’re going to get all your information for now.

3 Comments

  1. James gutierrez

    March 12, 2016 at 8:58 am

    Thanks, Jimmy for this piece! It’s incredibly sad that these guys won’t have the opportunity to experience the post season considering the effort we saw given this year. And those GPAs deserve their own stories. I feel for the players and their parents who’ve given everything to invest in their kids – I can’t help but remember talkin with the Tiby family and how much they’ve given to Matt and UWM. We all deserve better.

  2. Teryn

    March 12, 2016 at 10:37 am

    As a member of the Panther Dance Team I would like to set the record straight on some comments made about us in this article. First of all, we attend every home game throughout the regular basketball season. We are not paid to be at these games. We cheer on the team because we love to dance and support our school. Second, we consider most of the players on the team our good friends. We want the team to succeed just as much as anyone. This season has been a blast watching the team progress and win tough games. Lastly, I would just like to mention that we traveled to the tournament to support the guys and spent our own money in order to be there. We were extremely upset to see the team lose to Green Bay. We were yelling on the sidelines, hoping for a victory. None of us wanted to see the season end like that, and for that reason, the comments made in this article about us are disappointing. We do nothing but support this team and we wish you would support us too. We are sorry to hear about the postseason tournaments, and would have loved to keep cheering you on.

  3. Harry

    March 12, 2016 at 11:04 am

    Excellent article and as a alum, very sad for the program

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *