Fun fact: The Drake song "Started from the Bottom" is about the UW-Milwaukee Panthers men’s basketball team and its improbable 2016-17 late-season run. If that were true, it would be pretty cool. But even though it’s not, there’s still an even cooler, crazier and actually true fun fact about this team: It’s somehow, unbelievably, playing in the Horizon League Championship on Tuesday night.
That the Panthers have reached the conference title game, one win away from an automatic NCAA Tournament berth, is incredible. After a year of tumult – the school fired longtime coach Rob Jeter, hired first-time head coach LaVall Jordan, lost its top six scorers from last season, added eight new faces to the program and struggled against reported challenges from within the athletic department – Milwaukee, somewhat understandably, finished in last place in the Horizon League. With an 11-23 overall record and a 4-14 mark in conference play, the Panthers received the No. 10 seed, the lowest possible for the league tournament in Detroit.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, they brought real mayhem to Motor City Madness, beating seventh-seeded Detroit Mercy last Friday, then knocking off second-seeded Valparaiso the next day, then taking down sixth-seeded UIC on Monday to secure their place in the final against No. 4 seed Northern Kentucky. Milwaukee, which won all of four conference games during the regular season and closed its campaign on a nine-game losing streak, has now won three all-important, win-and-go-home, upset Horizon League contests in a row.
Along the way – or, at least, over the last 24 hours – the city of Milwaukee has seemed to collectively rise up, on social media, on campus, at bars, to cheer on the Panthers. Some seem to be rooting for the men’s basketball team, which has been at the heart of apparent athletic department and administration conflict, to overcome not only the adversity of being the unlikely champions of the conference tournament and securing an NCAA appearance, but also the perceived strife from its own school; others seem to be just pulling for the ultimate underdog.
With all that said, here’s a quick rundown of basic information for hard-core and casual Panthers fans alike:
1. How to watch?
The championship game of the Horizon League Tournament – or the 2017 Little Caesars Motor City Madness – will tip off Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. on ESPN, with Bob Wischusen and Fran Fraschilla on the call.
2. Where to watch?
The Black Rose Irish Pub hosts Panthers watch parties, the remaining bars on North Avenue are always a good bet for a fun Milwaukee student scene, as is the Gasthaus in the UWM Student Union, and Rivalry sports bar in the Third Ward is a great new option. Otherwise, any pub worth its pints will have this epic game on TV.
3. What’s at stake?
Because the NCAA Tournament awards an automatic bid to every Division 1 team that wins its conference tournament, a Milwaukee victory would mean the fifth appearance in program history. The Panthers would also set a record for the most losses (23) by a team entering the Big Dance. Neat!
4. Who are the Norse?
Since Northern Kentucky joined the Horizon League prior to last season, the Panthers have won three of five games against the Norse, including one of their four conference victories this year. Northern Kentucky has a 23-10 record overall (12-6 in league play) and is currently riding a five-game winning streak. The Norse are led by 2017 Horizon League Coach of the Year John Brannen and First-Team All-League selection Drew McDonald, who averages a team-best 16.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
History, destiny, momentum, these Panthers are adversity-overcomers and doubt-disprovers. Under the positive and precocious guidance of Jordan, led on the court by guards Brock Stull (13.4 points, 6.6 rebounds per game) and Cody Wichmann (13.0, 3.9) and with most Milwaukee sports fans cheering for them to shock the world, the guess/hope here is the Panthers do just that – locking down on defense like they did against Valparaiso and hitting their three-pointers like they did versus UIC – to win 61-47.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.