NCAA Tournament: 2nd Round
Thursday, March 20, 2014
When: 9:25 pm Eastern
(15) Milwaukee Panthers (21-13, 7-9) vs.
(2) Villanova Wildcats (28-4, 15-2)
RPI: Milwaukee: 132 | Villanova: 5
KenPom: Milwaukee: 163 | Villanova: 6
First Niagara Center (Capacity: 19,500)
Where: Buffalo, NY
Odds: Villanova -16.5 | O/U: OFF
Story of the Season
To put it bluntly, the Milwaukee Panthers were not supposed to punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament this year. Picked to finish last place in the Horizon League during ESPN's opening preview of the season, little was expected out of a team that concluded last year with a lackluster 8-24 record.
Over the duration of this year's conference play, the Panthers' accomplishments didn't exactly inspire confidence from those looking to hop aboard the bandwagon. Milwaukee suffered a four game losing streak, including defeats to perennial powers Cleveland State and University of Illinois-Chicago. When the dust settled and conference play concluded, the Panthers found themselves with a 7-9 record, good for fifth of nine.
But, and some will lament this is a problem in mid-major conferences, all a team needs is one good week at the onset of March to play their way into the NCAA tournament. And that's exactly what Milwaukee did. After cruising through their first two contests against Detroit and Valparaiso, the Panthers found themselves matched up against Green Bay. The Green Bay Phoenix were a legitimate at-large bubble team whose resume was bolstered by wins against the eventual first seed Virginia Cavaliers and Tulsa, champions of Conference USA. But Milwaukee, behind Jordan Aaron's 28 point outburst, found a way to overcome the Horizon League's top seed in overtime to the tune of 73-66. Another close contest in the championship game versus Wright State made it official; the Panthers were bound for the NCAA tournament.
So what exactly happened during the four game stretch that turned a middling Horizon League member into an NCAA Tournament team? Let's take a look at the Panther's key players to find out.
Milwaukee is a team that relies heavily on their starters. In fact, four of the five starters average at least 30 minutes; the fourth averages 27. We'll start with the man with the largest point production, but certainly not the biggest figure:
The diminutive guard stands only at 5'10," but don't let his size fool you. Aaron is a guard that isn't afraid to get into the lane and absorb contact. The senior, averaging just over 15 points per game, utilizes a tight dribble and a lightening quick first step to blow by opponents. Check out the highlights below:
Aaron's scoring is accomplished through a large volume of shots, as he launches almost 12 shots per game. Around six of those attempts will come from distance, where Aaron connects on 36%. He also converts 82% of his free-throws. Milwaukee will need a big scoring game out of their guard if they hope to hang around with Villanova.
But Aaron's aggression comes with a price. The Panthers' lead guard only averages 2.4 assists per game, a statistic that's even more striking considering the amount of time the ball spends in his hands. Even worse, Aaron's attack-first mentality leads to 2.1 turnovers per game. Villanova's guards must be able to funnel this match-up into traffic and force him to make tough decisions. With this in mind, expect an increase in minutes for the Wildcats' backup guards, Tony Chennault and Dylan Ennis, if Ryan Arcidiacono cannot stick with Aaron's speed early.
Kyle Kelm, a senior out of Rudolph; Wisconsin, patrols the paint for the Panthers. Measuring in at 6'9," Kelm offers decent size and length that will be able to at least threaten Villanova guards as they drive and slash. But, to an extent, Kelm remains a liability on the defensive end. Take a look at the highlights below against a very good Wisconsin team:
What immediately stands out is that Kelm is out of position to defend entries into the post and attacks at the rim. The senior, #3, often dances around the paint, unsure of where his assignment is. Expect Villanova to attack the Panthers' big man with quick ball movement around the perimeter and pick and rolls that will expose Kelm's poor rotations.
Offensively, Kelm contributes just under 13 points per game on 52% shooting. While he has proven at least capable, about a career 24% marksman, from deep, Kelm will look to do his damage against Villanova from the inside.
Tiby and Arians comprise the remaining spots in Milwaukee's front-court. Standing in a 6'8" and 6'6" respectively, the two forwards offer decent size and the ability to stretch the floor. Tiby shoots 32% from distance while Arians comes in at 36%, good for best on the team. Collectively, they combine for 23 points and 10 rebounds per contest.
Defensively, this is an area for Villanova to attack. If Arians is matched up with Darrun Hilliard II, Coach Wright must emphasize the importance of his guard driving into the lane at any chance he gets.
McWhorter acts as a utility man of sorts for the Panthers. The junior out of Racine, Wisconsin (I think this game will set a Villanova record for opponents who call Wisconsin home), fills up the stat sheet in a variety of ways. McWhorter averages 8 points, 4 rebounds, and perhaps most importantly for the Panthers, 4 assists. He also adds 1.5 steals per game. While McWhorter doesn't have the style of play to be a gamebreaker for Milwaukee, he could be a key cog in their upset bid.
No doubt, the Panthers are heavy underdogs in their duel with the Villanova Wildcats. But what are their chances of pulling off the upset? According to ESPN and their Giant Killer Formula, their are four main recipes to follow when looking to pull off a shocker. The first concept is to have a lights out shooter, a la Steph Curry. While Jordan Aaron can get hot and score in bunches, it seems unlikely that he'll be able to single-handedly carry his team to victory. The second is a team that can destroy the giant on the offensive boards. Considering the Panthers were out rebounded by their relatively weak schedule by a -1.5 margin, don't expect the Wildcats to give in on the boards. Third, a team that speeds up the pace and generates steals and turnovers can find a way to pilfer a win. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they rank only 221st in the nation with 5.8 steals per game.
The last quality for giant killers, well, isn't anything specific. In Milwaukee's case, it is likely their toughness and resilience to challenges. According to ESPN's tournament preview, "Throughout the season, the Panthers have risen to the occasion in big games. They don't do any one thing exceptionally well on the court, but they're mentally tough." Sounds like a team we're familiar with, right?
For Villanova, this game is all about sticking to what has gotten them here: attacking the paint, unselfish passing, and a knock-you-out defensive mentality. A number of the Wildcats' offensive weapons, namely JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, will be presented with match-ups they are more than capable of exploiting.
Seton Hall drew up the blue print for beating Villanova, as they dared the Wildcats to beat them with the drive. To the dismay of Villanova fans, they took the bait as their offense grew stagnant and uninspiring in the Big East Tournament quarterfinal. Expect Milwaukee's staff to draw up a similar plan in their opening round showdown.
Villanova owns the advantage in nearly every noticeable aspect of the game: size, athleticism, shooting, and rebounding. If Coach Wright has his players loose and committed to Villanova basketball, the Wildcats should find themselves in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Panthers are led by Coach Rob Jeter. Jeter comes from a family of athletes, including his father Bob Jeter, member of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Jeter has bounced around the state of Wisconsin during his coaching career, landing positions as an assistant at Marquette, Milwaukee, and Wisconsin before finally landing the head gig at Milwaukee in 2005. Since then, he's won the Horizon League regular season title in 2006 and 2011. Jeter was rewarded for his work in 2011 with the Conference's Coach of the Year title. His lone other visit to the NCAA Tournament with the Panthers was in 2006.