Panthers Begin Battling Back to .500 With Second Consectutive Win

In the midst of all the negative circumstances (Costly Injury of big man "G.I." Joe Allen, dismissals of Avery Smith, then Torre Johnson, followed by the abrupt departure of Roman Gentry), a silver lining has begun to materialize around the rain cloud that has engulfed much of the early stages of this UWM Basketball season. The Panthers made the trip to Laramie, Wyoming sans two of their best freshman recruits, Tim Flowers and Kevin "KJ" Johnson. What happens to these two promising players' future with the Milwaukee Basketball program is in the hands of Jeter, and Tim and Kevin.

If they can commit themselves to the dedication required for a successful Division 1 NCAA Basketball team, maybe these two will stick around to watch this team get much better this season, and get damn good in the coming 3-4 years. Many including myself have been upset with what has been reported as a sort of apathetic attitude for them, but I know they are still learning a new stage of life, away from their families and many of their friends.

They will either stick by a commitment they made long ago last fall, and grow into the powerhouse players they have the potential to be, or they will move on, elsewhere to another college, or somewhere. In any case I wish them the best. Seeing how the team has played in their absence would suggest that these two will really have to convince their teammates and the coaches that they want to be here in Milwaukee, earning their higher education from an excellent university, and playing for the Milwaukee Panthers (not a bad basketball team if you have watched the NCAA/NIT tournament over the past 5-6 years).

If they are not content, it wreaks havoc on team chemistry. I can only hope they can apologize for their mistakes, re-dedicate themselves to the program 110% and be given a second chance. These two could eventually become some of the best players on the team with more experience, and a tenacious will. But this blog isn't about a couple of heralded recruits whose status remains uncertain- it's about this season of UWM Hoops!

So with a mere 11 players landing in Laramie Saturday night, the Panthers (even coming off an impressive home victory vs. CMU) looked rather depleted. However, optimism has been rising slowly despite the unfortunate circumstances, and the Milwaukee Panthers played out of their minds in front of a large gathering of 5,000+ at the Wyoming Arena-Auditorium. Milwaukee and Wyoming played a bit of a tennis match for a while, responding to each other's runs for much of the first have. Then, Milwaukee went on (something of an anomaly previously this season) a strong 12-0 run up to the break. After halftime, the Panthers went on another large run, extending their lead to 25 at on point.

The Cowboys of Wyoming were nearly successful at overcoming this huge deficit, but UWM was just too much. We nailed nearly all of our free throws down the stretch to prevent another late game collapse. Paige Paulsen (26pts, 7Rbs, 5-8 from 3pt), played like the new go-to guy (as he needs to be; Paige can shoot the rock!) on this team in front of a large contingent of his friends and family who made the trip to Wyoming from his hometown neighboring state of South Dakota. The players, coaches, and other team personnel had to be pretty happy on their return to Milwaukee. A 3-7 record has been bolstered by 2 consecutive wins to put the team at 5-7 entering Horizon League play 'in full" which kicks off at the US Cellular Arena, 7:00pm, vs. Wright State.

Ricky Franklin chipped in 12 points, and Marcus Skinner posted a solid 8pt, 8rbs effort proving that he is more than deserving of his increased minutes. The most impressive line of the game came from another "heralded" freshman recruit, Deonte Roberts. Roberts finished the game with a collegiate best 17 pts, 9 assists, which has only added to the notion that Deonte is by far the player most acclimated to D-1 play. I can't imagine the numbers this kid could put up in the next few years (and even in the remaining games this season- Roberts is good, real good; and he is on his way to being great).

The Panthers won the turnover battle against the Cowboys with only 8 of their own to Wyoming's whopping 20 (14 coming off Panther steals). It's pretty obvious that since the Loyola game, the defense has stepped up considerably. That is very encouraging to see as previously the Panthers were giving up 80, 90, and even 100 points in games previous to this defensive turnaround.

The players look much more energetic, aggressive, and polished out there. Gone (for now) is the lethargic bunch that earlier in the season made many of us Panther fans nervous that this season may become a lost cause, and quickly. While a 5-7 record (good enough for only 9th place in the Horizon) is by no means stellar, it's a big step forward for this team who had lost 6 in a row before these two straight victories.

It (the HL rankings) is also a big indication that the Horizon League, which boasts 3 teams ranked in the top 40 RPI in the country, is a very, very competitive conference this year. Many of the HL teams have a shot at NCAA/NIT post-season births. Will UWM eventually fall into that fold? The way they have played these last 2 games would suggest that they have a chance of knocking off some good teams, and winning many more games than people may have thought about 3 weeks ago.

Dispatching a very good Wright State team (who knocked off #16 Butler, and Miami (FL) already this season), could be the tipping point which brings this season back on track. All is not lost if we lose this game, but I think with the current positives that have come out of the team's resilient response to the off-court troubles, we have a pretty good shot at beating the Raiders this Thursday night. Come out and support Milwaukee's team.

The Panthers are only a couple wins shy of battling back to .500. From there, who knows where the fortunes will take us. But, if Deonte Roberts, Paige Paulsen, Ricky Franklin, and Marcus Skinner play like they have recently, and have anything to say about it, I think we will be just fine. The 9-22 season of a year ago is in the past. The 6 game slide is behind us. The future holds unlimited possibilities, and until it is statistically impossible, a winning record is one of those.