I'm back; Your Championship-Caliber Panthers? T.B.D.

The Peacocks came out strong against the Panthers, but were overmatched as the Panthers handily won 78-53 with the help of Flowers and Johnson scoring a combined 34 points (16 and 18, respectively). UWM built an insurmountable lead in the second half and Upper Iowa was never able to keep up. We should have won this one by double-digits, and we did; that was a baby step forward. While UIU was only a D-2 opponent, this was a good way to start the regular season; however I don’t think it quite prepared the Panthers for their next challenge, on the road, versus Ball State.

Ball State scared the crap out of me. Let me rephrase that- the way we came out (flat feet) concerned me quite a great deal. The Panthers were down 15 at half, and Ball State scored the first 2 pts of the second half, making it a 17 point lead- their biggest of the game. Thank heavens for the 3pt field goal or this one would have been over and done with. Paige Paulsen (19 points) hit some spectacular 3’s (one with a hand in his face), and Rickey Franklin showed some much-needed poise. Torre had a quiet (is that possible?) 19 points to aide in the comeback effort- this was much needed and signaled a big change from last year when we had no depth to have players score 19 points, “quietly”.

The most memorable moment(s) of this came in the closing seconds. After a barrage of 3’s by the Panthers (while Ball State progressively tired it’s starters and couple reserves), the Panthers were within striking distance, and Rickey Franklin put up a horrible shot from the perimeter. Not only was the shot well off the mark, but he was not open and would have been much better off swinging the ball to someone else to open up a good scoring opportunity. Shortly after that, RJ called a timeout, and as TWS panned to the huddle you could see Jeter reaming into Rickey. I thought for sure, the game was over, and Mr. Franklin (11 points on the night) was going to have a long lonely bus ride back to the East Side of Milwaukee. I said to my cousin, I don’t think they will win, but I sure am proud of the way they came back like this...

I spoke too soon. With 3 seconds and some change on the clock, the ball was in-bounded to Ricky, he ran quickly across the court and, just before the .001 ticked off, he nailed a ring-around triple that stunned Ball State’s meager group of fans, tied the game, and set the stage for a UWM-dominated overtime in which we (against all odds) came away from this with a win, 81-74. Sweet redemption. This game was ugly, it revealed a lot about the Panthers weaknesses, but we got the “W”, and that is all that really counts in the end.

Northern Iowa was supposed to be a tough match-up. This was supposed to be the first real test for the Panthers (well, the team’s first REAL test came against Ball State, and they came out in the second half a completely different team (I forgot to mention UWM was something like 1-13 from 3 in the first half- absolutely horrid shooting).

I wish I had more to say about this game, but I only three things stick in my head (besides the crummy fact we suffered the first loss of the season, 73-66). 1). Torre Johnson is unbelievable (esp. for a Horizon League player). He almost singlehandedly snatched the win away from UNI. With an array of post-up and off-rebound dunks that must have shook Kilbourn St., 15 foot floating jumpers that were made to look easy, and esp. his buzzer beating trey just before half which cut the lead from 5 to a much more manageable 2 points. 2). J. Eglseder. ‘Nuff said. This 7’1” center completely dominated the Panthers from start (almost) to finish.

It’s surprising that UNI did not feed him the ball more in the second half, as he was automatic, going over the outmatched 6’5” Tim Flowers every single time for 2 points when he got the ball down low. I for one would have liked to see Torre Johnson defend this guy (he did for a bit at the end I believe), as Torre is taller than Tim (6’6”) and can jump over the 7-foot monster that was Jordan E. 3). Tim Flowers played awful, both on offense and defense. He could do nothing against the jolly purple giant and went 1-10 shooting all while seeming to press every shot more than the next (kick it out to the G-men when it ain’t falling Tim!).

I hate to hammer it home, but it was obvious (ask him, and I’m sure he would agree). Flowers had no answer to J. Eglseder. Nothing at all; and I don’t blame him. This was a pathetic mismatch and it showed. Milwaukee desperately needs size (where is Kevin Massiah?!!), but seeing as how that can’t be addressed mid-season, we need to figure out a very clever and effective way to make up for the lack of size. Whether it be some great perimeter play by Paulsen, Hanson (TBD, he has sunk a few beautiful shots from beyond the arc this year, but it as been sparse), Franklin, T. Johnson, Roberts, Gentry (I thought Roman could rain three’s!!- his shot will come around… it better, or the Panthers could be in big trouble).

This was an interesting game, and as bad as we played (a corrosive .334 from the field), there were some positives to take away. The main highlight was that of Torre Johnson. He is experienced, and not intimidated in the least. Our prized freshman however, are just that (as we all-to-often forget) just that- “freshman”. While they played with him, Flowers and KJ are not Derrick Rose, and we cannot expect them to play like superstars out of the gates. I think Flowers may develop more quickly than KJ (KJ didn’t even start at Simeon until he was a senior), I think in very little time (hopefully by mid-season(!), realistically by their second or third year here), they will be major forces for this team. UNI showed us that there is a lot of work to do yet before the freshman can against with talented veterans.
dDeonte Roberts on the other hand, played well, but he wasn’t in for any real long stretches. Anthony Hill has some adjusting to do.

Those who saw Bradley Tech games on TV know he likes to shoot (and can hit) the three ball, but I think with someone his size, it is a pretty big waste to leave a body like that out on the perimeter (Hill could have easily snagged some nice offensive rebounds to create additional opportunities). Slowly, but surely, all will work itself out, and things will begin to click like a well oiled engine.. Is that just blind faith in the only team I love? Maybe. Or maybe it could hold water like our Great Lake along Lincoln Memorial drive. I am confident in the latter. If we are all patient, great things will happen. That is the credo for this year (ok, for this “Blog”). Up next, was South Dakota State. Enter Paige Paulsen, South Dakota native.

So the mighty Jackrabbits of South Dakota State took the floor at the Cell last night. That would in most cases be a joke, were it not for the fact that these rabbits almost hopped out of town with a victory. The first half of this game made the entire crowd of Panther fans noxious (or was that just me?). One missed foul shot after another gradually allowed South Dakota State to build up a double digit lead by half. Flowers was most notable (4 for 14), however many were guilty in this regard- Swigget, Roberts, Skinner (all 0-2) all contributed to the forgettable performance at the line (the Panthers were 22 for 41 (.556) in the game).

It cannot be ignored that two of SDSU's scrappy players made us look like a high school team. Garret Callahan (19 pts), a guard, consistently slashed through the Panther defense and scored at will. Forward Ben Beran (21 pts) was a force down low and dropped field goals over the top of Tim Flowers nearly all night. I literally had a bad stomach ache and my face in my palms at halftime. What happened to the unlimited potential this team had? How could so much talent play so pitifully?

Luckily for us Panther fans, the players must have heeded the inspirational (albeit heated I'm sure) pep-talk of Jeter during halftime and came out scoring the first 10 points of the second half. UWM outscored the Jack Rabbits 55-36 in Round 2- led almost exclusively by the emerging veteran tandem of Paige Paulsen (27 pts, 7 rbs) and Torre Johnson (22 pts, 9 rbs) which has carried this team either to victory or in the case of the UNI game, kept the loss “respectable”, all four regular season games so far and the exhibition (Paige was a bit less noticeable until the Ball State game).

I don't know what the cause of absence is for their expected “supporting cast”, but it must be identified, and resolved very quickly unless UWM wants to suffer severe beatings at the hands of foes who aren't dealing with these kinds of “growing pains” and subsequently have this season quickly go down in flames (enter- Drake, Sam Houston State, and Marquette the next three games, followed up by road contests vs. Loyola and UIC in Chicago).

Don't get me wrong. The Panthers showed some obvious intensity after the break vs. SDSU after playing in a drunken daze all throughout the first half. But the foul shots continued to bounce wayward, and though we won by 9 points, South Dakota State was never completely out of the game until about the final 50 seconds. I must give SDSU some credit for playing tough, but this seriously was a team the Panthers (heck- UW-Parkside even!) should have beaten by 20-25 points. I am not that disappointed. After all, we won, and a 3-1 start to this season is a marked improvement over last year (1-3 at this point). But there are glaring weaknesses that need to be addressed. I am the consummate optimist, but the past few games have given even myself and many others among the Panther faithful (or fanatical?) more than a bit a cause for concern.

If we are to compete against better teams, a minor revolution of change and improvement needs to take place. In summary, foul shooting, shot selection, ball control (turnovers are killing our runs), and far and away above the all, “D-FENCE”, need a huge turnaround. Paige and Torre cannot carry this team on their shoulders every game. The Panthers biggest strength this year is, -er “was” supposed to be their incredible depth. Unfortunately, many of the inexperienced freshman are showing their initial timidity and well, obvious D-1 college b-ball “inexperience”; this is to be expected unless you are Derrick Rose, Ben Gordon, or Kevin Love. More frustrating is the fact that many of the second year players have yet play up to their potential.

All this criticism being said, I am not entirely convinced the Milwaukee Panthers team I have seen in these first 5 games is the product that will be pressing the floor effectively, rocking rims, rejecting post shots, and draining threes (and I can only hope the “free” shots!) very soon. In the midst of this dreadfully ugly display of “comeback basketball” against some very sub-par competition (save UNI- they were flat out flawless at the Cell- I am surprised Torre and Paige managed to keep it so close), there have been some very promising flashes of greatness. I will not for one minute believe that the play exhibited so far by some of our players who are struggling will continue throughout this long season. Once the talent-laden freshman come into their own and start to feel comfortable in their black and gold, and the supporting cast steps up to assist Paulsen and Milwaukee's Beast (Torre), the Panthers will be a very tough team to beat (right now we don't look so tough, despite the nice 3-1 start).

I only hope that this happens sometime early this season, and not next. These upcoming three games (once again, Drake, Sam Houston State, and (drum roll please...) Marquette) could very well determine the fate of this season. I see losing 2 of 3 making chances of winning the league quite slim, but not out of the ballpark (esp. if the win were to come against MU). Going 2-1 would be a very positive step toward competing for the Horizon title, but nowhere near a “lock”.

If we win out (beat Tom Crean and his Golden Eagles at the Bradley Center? No way!!) I will have no doubt in my mind that this team is for real, and could best Butler to win the Horizon. But (seemingly the most likely based on the team's performance so far) if we lose each of the next 3 match-ups and plummet to 3-4, look for a season of more rebuilding (unless the Horizon League Tournament can offer redemption and give us an auto-bid to the Tourney). We would undoubtedly do much better than last year's 9-22, and wind up bit over .500, but championships and dreams of March Madness might as well be just that. Dreams.

Here's to hoping things start off on the right path this Saturday at the Cell versus Drake, an MVC team that is by no means a pushover. If the veteran super-tandem gets their long awaited help from those who haven't started out in rare form, I think a W this Saturday would build confidence that could spill over into next week- which I now informally dub “Judgment Week”. Last night, Sam Houston State belittled a pushover in St. Gregory's (a la South Dakota State) 88-40, while Marquette thrashed a solid Oklahoma State team tonight 91-61.

I actually believe (yes I am a bit irrational in my reasoning) with a bit of luck, a lot of fan support , and a complete turnaround in the aforementioned deficiencies, we can emerge victorious in any one of or (hopefully) all three of these upcoming challenges. In order for that to materialize though, this team will require every ounce of confidence it can get. It all starts this Saturday night at the Cell. Be there to witness the start of something potentially great.