The Splits (and a clean slate)

Well, the 2008-2009 Milwaukee Panthers regular season is in the bag.

UWM managed to split on the road against Wright State (lost, 70-60) and Detroit (won, 69-63). It was tough to see the team go down in flames at the Nutter Center after a poised effort in the first half had us Panther fans clinging to hopes of one final road sweep- something the team did only once this year (at UIC and at Loyola).

In the first game, last Thursday night, Ricky Franklin lit it up well, "Ricky Franklin style". We have begun to grow accustomed to Rick's deadly accurate perimeter shooting. He's scorching a collegiate best .389 outside the arc on the season, and lucky for the Panthers, his shooting seems to just now be getting the hottest. But in the second half, Franklin went a little cold- along with a sluggish Panther team who hadn't quite caught fire, and James Eayrs, who was being triple teamed all game by the Raiders.

The Panthers were outplayed in the second half by the same Wright State team that we dismantled 66-59 at home earlier in the season (Vaughn Duggins never came back this season (and may be able to medical redshirt for next season unfortunately..)). One last thing about the Raiders- Everyone in the Horizon knows about Todd Brown by now, but N'Gai Evans is definitely someone to watch out for.

The game against Detroit was a solid effort. Deonte Roberts sat out due to a knee injury suffered in practice that will be updated before Tuesday's game. It would have been nice to have Deonte (and a more healthy Tone), but fortunately guys like Tony Meier, Ricky, and none other than Jason Averkamp stepped up big time. It seems like years since Averkamp's played a huge role in a game- it's great to see him out giving the kind of minutes like he was (pretty much forced to) at the end of last year when he was 1 of only 2-3 true forwards on the team. Milwaukee clung to victory, even as Detroit closed the gap to within 3 points with under a minute remaining.

The team showed the kind of dogged determination needed to get out of this rut that seems to have come on somewhere in Indiana and only let up momentarily for the blockbuster that was the Butler win. I really think that these Panthers are only a streak away (up to at least 4 games to be precise) from finding out that they actually can be the same team on the road as they are at the Cell (or at neutral sites as will be the case for the Finals and the Quarterfinals in Indianapolis). Thank the Lord for that. Let me explain.

The final tally for our road record was 3-10- not exactly "road warriors". Milwaukee was 2-0 at neutral sites- the games played against Loyola Marymount and Cal Davis during the season-opening "World Vision Classic" in Ames, IA.

UWM was a completely flipped 11-3 at home this season. It is encouraging to see the team is starting to take back the Cell in a way that hasn't been seen since '05-'06. Is it that new floor that's given the Panthers new found pride in their home turf? Dunno, but I think we'd all like to see not only a solid home record like the one just posted- but a super-long home winning streeeeeak that would begin to make it seem all but impossible for visiting teams to leave the Cell with a "W".

Here is some obvious but interesting food for thought. Had Milwaukee won 3 more road games to have a road record of 6-7, the final regular season record would have been 19-10- a bit more impressive and worthy of tournament consideration beyond every team's outside or inside shot at an auto-bid to the NCAAs. And if those extra wins were Horizon League games UWM would have gotten a better Horizon tournament seed... and you can see where things could have made our conference playoff run a littler easier.

What's done is done, but maybe next year a road split or better can be achieved. This team is certainly improving year over year since the huge dropoff after the most recent NCAA Tournament run in '05-'06. The question is, can the Panthers keep pace or better with the rest of the emerging Horizon league? In a league where the #1 favorite UIC is languishing in 7th place (7-11, 15-14) and Valparaiso is in next to last place (5-13, 9-21), you know there is a lot of program growth going on around the conference.

The Detroit win at least gave the Panthers a little jolt . UWM shot stellar compared to many games of late (.455), and did just what they had to do to win. Not to say that the team hasn't shown that they don't at all realize the dire straights they've been in lately (lost 5 of last 7 games), but it seems that Jeter and the players still have absolute confidence that this team can win the Horizon League tournament. And so do a lot of the fans (so says the straw poll to your right). Butler fell to the Panthers yes- but that was in Milwaukee. But then again they lost at home to the same Loyola that comes to Milwaukee Tuesday night (that Milwaukee swept in the season series). The drama unfolds...

The upcoming 7 days of the season's end (for most teams) will be a much, much more difficult journey. One that, despite the current odds I believe this team has been capable of completing all along. It all starts over with Loyola. Like Jeter said in the Detroit pre-game, the Horizon League Tournament is literally a new season. Everyone is 0-0 (well, except for Green Bay and Butler- they are kinda 2-0 already... D&^$ double-bye system! Though we'd have been happy to take those byes of course).

For a team much improved over last year but that still fell short of hopeful early expectations (esp. after a 7-1 conference start), that might be just what they need- a clean slate.

Let the battles begin, Horizon League!