Mexic...ohhhh Noooo...

Welp, your Milwaukee Panthers' trip to Puerto Vallarta, while I'm sure an amazing vacation for the team and staff and a great time to build team chemistry among the many new faces, did not go as planned on the basketball side of things.

If there were such things as mulligans in college hoops- ours are all used up. Wake up!

Let's face the facts here folks- we sucked. Big time. And lost. In both of our games against Jacksonville and Rider, the team on the court (from what listeners could tell from the radio call and/or readers could tell from the box scores) in Puerta Vallarta did not at all resemble the team that we saw effortlessly beat a D-III school by 30 (as we always should, yet haven't in many seasons past), nearly beat South Carolina on the road, and beat Davidson.

Maybe it was the water. Maybe sun burn. Sure, the referees in the Jacksonville game were more than a bit questionable, but as I mentioned in my brief mention of the UALR game last post- we cannot let referees dictate whether we win or lose.

I recently watched a great documentary on Netflix called, "Something to Cheer About" about the men's basketball team at an Indianapolis, IN segregated high school called Crispus Attucks during the 50's.

Ray Crowe (left) and Indianapolis Mayor Alex Clark.

A lot of it centers around their legendary coach, Ray Crowe (who had attended virtually all-white grade and high schools when he was young, usually being the lone black student), who was able to turn a school that had been created specifically to push "the blacks" out of Indiananapolis' mostly all-white high schools- into a compelling chapter in the story of American sports history.

Several former players are interviewed and they recall what is was like to play for this incredible coach and the teams he led into battle on the hardwood.

One of the former players interviewed noted that, because the referees were virtually always white and almost always prejudiced against black players (esp. when Crispus Attucks' started showing up other "white" schools that had been perennial winners), "It was 5 on 7. We knew we had to beat two teams".

The Big "O" playing college ball at Cincinnati before becoming a Milwaukee/NBA legend.

Oscar Robertson was on those teams- which obviously didn't hurt; but everyone on those Crispus Attucks' teams knew that they could not simply play at a normal level- they had to play out of their minds to overcome the prejudiced 6th and 7th men. And they did.

They found ways to win- a LOT. So much so that they became the first all-black high school team in the United States to win a state championship in 1955 (they went undefeated the following season and won the state title again in 1956).

Some games we will have to play 5 on 7. With Horizon League refs who by and large are not too fond of Milwaukee's sometimes harassing-ly boisterous fan base- this has been and will continue to be the case more often than not.

We aren't the only team in the universe that has to deal with bad officiating. Ask Izzo.

But learning to beat two teams (the opponent and biased officiating) can be a very, very good thing.

Look to baseball for an analogy. Batters warm up in the on-deck circle before they come up to the plate with what is called a "doughnut" (a heavy weight that is slipped onto the barrel of the bat). The purpose is for the hitter to take swings with a much heavier bat, so that when he/she drops the doughnut and steps up to face the pitcher- the bat seems much lighter and easier to control.

See what I am getting at? Yes, bad officiating sucks. But that wasn't the case against Rider- they just Rider'd our butts out of Mexico and we didn't even come close to matching their performance. Had we taken our "on-deck doughnut swings" and been prepared to play a 5 on 7 type of game, maybe we would have had an easier time controlling the ball and clawed our way to at least one victory in this tournament.

In the case of Jacksonville and countless other games where fans, bloggers, discussion board posters, etc. talk of getting "jobbed" by an officiating crew- we cannot change that. That will always be an aspect of the game. It is in virtually any sport- see McKayla Maroney's infamous "face".

Sometimes the judges just see things differently than you. Gotta leave no doubts.

What we have to do very early in games, is gauge the style of officiating and adapt to that style. If the refs are lax and letting guys bang around in he paint and not calling reach-in's that are not an obvious affront- well then we have to accept it and not complain; but rather take that as a queue that it's going to be a battle and flex our weapons appropriately.

On the flip-side, if the officials are calling tick-tack-everything, we have to be a lot more careful- in dribbling with palms down (to avoid the rare and selective "carrying" calls), and we have to watch how we defend. All attempts to take a charge (something we haven't done well enough yet this year), should make perfectly clear that it's an offensive foul- if a foot is just a few inches away from being set- it's a block. Fouls have been killing us this season and we need to adapt depending on what we are given from the guys in the zebra-striped shirts.

No more complaining about refs- every team gets jobbed once in a while and every team (including us) is the beneficiary of questionable calls from time to time. We have to come prepared to play every game as if it is going to be 5 on 7. And referees don't defend or score- so they are pretty easy to contain/play around if you can just understand their style of officiating (yes, rules should be objective, but it's obvious they are not- they are selectively enforced by innately imperfect humans).

UWM didn't go from this....

Now that that is out of my system... The games. Should I even write about them as most anyone reading this has already heard about or read about what happened and is just now recovering from the devastation that was our pair of games in Mexico?

I will summarize quickly.. The Jacksonville Dolphins of the Sun Belt Conference (whom, despite their Mid-Major status and ambiguity in the modern era, actually lost the 1970 NCAA Tournament Final to UCLA) played an aggressive, albeit sloppy brand of full-court press and half-court man pressure and we got rattled early after getting out to an early 9pt lead. Try as we might, we never fully recovered- it was all downhill once Jacksonville got locked in and found our Achilles' Heel.

In the 2nd Half we cut the deficit to low single digits several times, but every time we inched closer, someone on the Dolphins would find an opening, and dash our hopes for a much needed victory #1 in the Hoops for Hope Tourney (the games at South Carolina and UALR comprised the on-campus portion of the tournament). this- for nothing.

Jordan Aaron carried as much of the load as he could en route to 19pts and Big Meetch put up a double-double (16pts, 12rbs) but it was a far cry from what we needed to win. We got a paltry 7 points off the bench (to the 'Fins 29pts). We shot 44% FG, 70% FT (not terrible), but we shot a stifling 2-11 (18%) from 3pt land and our only bigs who stood up to the harassing Jacksonville defense were Big Meetch and Haarsma (10pts, 7rbs). Everyone else just kinda looked on as our ship slowly took on more and more water and finally sunk: 71-66, "Fins".

The scoreboard was constantly out of whack in Mexico (time stopping randomly, shot clock not starting, fouls and even points being incorrect) and the refs quite frankly did suck. But again- do you think Butler or even Davidson would have lost to an undisciplined and straight-up sketchy Jacksonville team like we did just because of the refs? It's highly doubtful. 5 on 7.... 5 on 7.... 5 on 7.

If the losses to Jacksonville and UALR were toothaches, our loss to Rider the following Sunday afternoon was an ER-level migraine. We could not get anything going offensively. Even Richard (11pts, 2rbs, 2ast) played his best game of the year so far. JJ Panoske saw 13 quality minutes and grabbed 4 boards to go along with a bucket. Big Meetch and Austen Arians added 10pts apiece.

We have a steep mountain to climb; but we can BE GREAT if we believe.

But once again, we were pressured all game and though we were slightly better at breaking the baseline inbound to half-court pressure, we didn't run an effective enough offense to get the number of quality looks we needed. And we couldn't buy a second chance bucket. We, for the third game in a row- missed layups (more than once)- and so we lost- probably by 10 points less than we might have were it not for a late (but too late) push: 74-60, "Broncs".

If we are going to be an inside-outside paint-touching/perimeter-shooting team, we've gotta get tougher, more confident in our shots and more patient with both passes and shots- all while still keeping an eye on how the refs are calling the game. Above everything- we gotta protect the ball like it was a first-born child. Turnovers and preventable mistakes probably accounted for 80-90% of the deficits in these losses.

The Little Things. Knocking down threes and throwing down alley-oop jams is awesome to behold- but those things aren't going to happen if the little things aren't taken care of first.

We better come to play. UNI ain't about to roll over.

I believe coming home to Milwaukee and having a week to clear the air and forget the games in Mexico is exactly what this team needs (it's over- do recall we have had gong-games (Valpo in January of 2011 comes to my mind) in the past and gone on to have big-time success).

There is a full week of practice before the team heads out to play what will be their toughest challenge yet against Northern Iowa. A steep hill to climb no doubt, but a great opportunity to get out the ol' tourniquet and turn this season around to where we thought it could go in the 1st half of the South Carolina game.

Let's all hope practice goes well, and that a huge emphasis is put on the Little Things. Once those are shored up and the team gets in lock-step- the big things will take care of themselves, as the saying goes...

In addition to the fundamentals that have slipped away in the last 3 contests, it has become abundantly clear that this team lacks leadership. We had it on all the great teams from 2003-2006. We had it with Ricky Franklin for all 4 of his years as a Panther PG.

If you look up "passion" or "leader" in the dictionary- you will see this photo of #21 and #23.

We had it in Anthony Hill. We had it in Tone Boyle and Kaylon Williams and Tony Meier to a certain extent (Tony wasn't the loudest of leaders but look up to see how much he cared about being a Milwaukee Panther and playing with his best college friends).

Right now, we seem to have a leadership void that is just waiting for someone (or more than one person- James? Paris? Demetrius? Kyle? Ryan? Jordan?) to fill and become the voice of calm, reason and morale for this team.

The coaching staff can and does do everything in their power to prepare the team for the games- but they can't get on the court and fire up, pick up, or bail out a teammate. We have players who can- but they have to stand up immediately and say, "OK guys, no more B.S. I will help lead this thing if you all will follow me".

(Hinkle used to be called "Butler" Fieldhouse).

We as Milwaukee Panther fans (at least the fans who haven't prematurely jumped ship) have never been more distressed yet forlornly hopeful for a winning streak. Maybe this Saturday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa- is the ticket.