The Milwaukee Panthers were fifth in the Horizon League, but March is the month where dreams come true, and after a big run in the conference tournament they checked into the bracket as a 15-seed, slated with the task of preparing for a match-up with Villanova in Buffalo.
Nova Nation is largely in the dark about the Panthers, but they played one game against a common opponent this season, losing 80-71 in a visit from DePaul. After their league tourney, their record sits at 21-13. KenPom.com gives the Panthers an 8% chance of victory, but stats don't always tell the whole story, so to fill in the rest, we reached out to PantherU.com for more.
Our Q&A with PantherU's Jimmy Lemke follows. We'll be answering some questions for them as well, so be sure to check out their site as well.
(1) At what point did Panther fans know that this team was NCAA-tourney bound, and what sort of seeding were you anticipating prior to the bracket release?
Anybody who says anything earlier than one minute left in the Horizon League Title game is lying through their teeth. The second half was completely nerve-racking. I've wanted it very much, not just because of this being my alma mater but also for the coaching staff that has never been good enough for the fans who kept waiting for Bruce Pearl to walk through that door. It's validation for Rob Jeter's tenure, and I don't think any of us were assuming it was coming until we started to see the clock counting down by the tenth of a second. Confidence was definitely sky high coming out of Green Bay though. As far as the seed, I had been expecting a 16. I mean we were 5th place in the Horizon League and were under .500 in conference. I guess it speaks to relative strength of the Horizon against other mid-majors and it definitely puts low-majors in their place. Once the upsets started rolling in, we saw a 15 was coming and maybe a 14 if a couple more had shaken out.
(2) I see that you guys didn't play against Marquette this year. Is there any bad blood between UW-Milwaukee and the Big East school in town?
I would say the bad blood pressure between Milwaukee and Marquette has largely gone out the window since the main players, Tom Crean and Bruce Pearl, are gone. Pearl is the ultimate used car salesman, and he had the whole city talking about the two schools playing each other for years. Marquette never played that game until Pearl was gone and Jeter's second team finished 9-22. Then they were all about signing a contract. I understand why MU was apprehensive; they own a pretty heavy record in the series (39-0, in dispute) and they weren't going to put that in jeopardy. We would have won this year, we would have won from 2003-04 to 2005-06. The animosity was entirely a Pearl creation. When the series ended in 1998, no one complained. There was no talk about it in local media. But Pearl dragged on and they finally said yes but not until after we had fallen off. Classic Crean. Buzz wouldn't pull that crap on Milwaukee. The series ended because the date set for the last game was on the same day as the aircraft carrier game, and we weren't going to get in the way of that game getting played. Weather did, but our coaching staff isn't awful like that. The animosity has totally died down. My site, PantherU.com, is part of the BrewCityBall.com network, which is basically a Marquette vehicle. I even cheer for Marquette when they play Wisconsin. We're lucky you're not in the Big Ten or this would be a pretty angry rant.
(3) Milwaukee had a great run in the Horizon tournament after losing four of their last five to end the regular season, what changed for the Panthers to pull them out of that slump?
Jordan Aaron coming back from suspension was a big deal. He spent four of the final five games sitting out for a team rules violation - nothing major - and the time away helped a whole bunch. We lost four of the last five, one with him playing on senior night, but the important thing was it allowed Jeter to push the players to get back to making plays themselves. Jay-O (his nickname) is such a dynamic scorer that it had gotten to be the tendency for them to feed him the ball and basically let him win games. We won at Green Bay on February 8th because Aaron totally destroyed their defense. With him out, players had to step up. The biggest boon was JR Lyle, who went from not playing much at all to scoring in double digits in most games after Jordan was suspended. Jeter also rested Matt Tiby more on the bench towards the end of the season, and he's fresh again.
(4) At VU Hoops, we love Villanova alum and Milwaukee-native Chris Charles. Is Chris Charles a great Milwaukee basketball player or the greatest Milwaukee basketball player?
That's a name I haven't heard in quite a long time. Wow. I'll always remember Chris Charles as the player who began the practice of Milwaukee high schoolers going to prep school somewhere else to focus on basketball. There was one point about five or six years ago when most of the top 10 prep juniors from the year before left the area to go to prep school. Unlike the rest of them though, I seem to remember Charles never playing the City Conference. I would have liked to see it, because he was in high school right around the time Vincent was going on their three consecutive state title run. For the record, I'd vote Carl Landry as the best player from Milwaukee.
(5) What do the Panthers need to do well to win? What errors do they need to avoid?
If they get up early, that could be the key. In the conference tournament they trailed for about five out of 80 minutes total. Their confidence is flying, so I don't think they'll be intimidated by the lights. They just played two games against wild road crowds. If they can knock down a couple shots early, and feed the ball in low for a couple, they've got a great shot. They're not thinking like a 15 seed. Their perimeter defense needs to play tough. The scout on Villanova is that they rely more heavily on the three-pointer than most high-majors, which should be a testament to how good they are if they can suffer cold shooting nights and still have only four losses on the year. Villanova's best bet to win is to force someone besides Jordan Aaron from Milwaukee to beat them on the dribble. He'll get through any kind of defense, but most of them are tepid ball handlers at best. Steve McWhorter isn't going to dribble into trouble but he's not going to wow you, and JR Lyle is lightning quick and has the handles but he hasn't learned to control his speed. Force them to put the ball on the floor. That's what Milwaukee is going to try to avoid. I'm not worried about the inside. Kelm, Tiby and Malcolm Moore would hold their own against any post heavy team in the country.
(6) Villanova was lit up by Creighton from deep. Which Panther(s) have the potential to launch Wragge-bombs from beyond NBA-range?
Every player on Milwaukee is a three-point shooter, save for maybe Bobo Niang and he is out for the year. Kyle Kelm has been passing up on those shots, but he'll take one if the Wildcats give him enough room. The way they recruit is like a mini-Wisconsin. They place a premium on shooters. Which is why I have no doubt that we have the firepower to win. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but it's not going to be for lack of talent or a bad match-up. Jay Wright will probably put his fastest perimeter defender with height on Jordan Aaron. That will negate Aaron's three-point ability, although the defender better not get caught sleeping because Jay-O will drop a 25-foot bomb on his head. The best outside shooter is Austin Arians, who only recently got his shooting stroke back after a rough February. Cody Wichmann is another strong shooter who is hampered a bit by an ankle injury. He had scheduled a surgery for March 13th a couple months ago. Oops.