The black and gold flags whipped in the wind, creating a stark, bold look against the old brick of the place many will always call "The MECCA." The signage on the edifice is sharp, new. So is the new scoreboard within, and the new seats.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee took over the naming rights to the former U.S. Cellular Arena in late June, just months after the basketball team made a stirring run through the Horizon League Tournament, which resulted in a championship and the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006.
"It makes it feel like home – this is our place," said Panthers head coach Rob Jeter. "Not just for basketball but for our students and graduations. We do a lot of things here. Now that our name’s on the front it, it feels more like home. Now we can take this and turn it into more of a home court advantage for the basketball team."
Unfortunately the news, and the new-look, wasn’t seen as another log added to a healthy fire that was created in the spring. No, that flame was extinguished in just weeks after the Panthers fell to Villanova in the Big Dance – the team was banned from any postseason play due to poor academic performance.
So now, the new, old, home court will be seen as a way to keep the fan base interested as the Panthers set their sights on claiming their first regular season Horizon League championship since 2011.
"It was devastating with it being my senior year, not being able to go back to the Big Dance," senior guard Steve McWhorter said. "But a few days after I figured (to) come back with the same mindset that there’s still a championship to be won."
Everyone in the program feels that disappointment, but from Jeter on down, they all vow it won’t prevent the team from trying to prove that they could have been a postseason force by being one in the 30 games they can play.
"It’s definitely disappointing, but there’s nothing we can do about that now," junior forward Austin Arians said. "There’s nothing anybody can do about. So the way we’re looking at it is there’s still a regular season conference championship to be had and we can still win that. I think that’s the focus for this year’s team, is to go out there and get that."
Jeter, who says his team will have to prepare to play like defending conference champions every night, expects nothing less than that goal from his players.
"First of all, they’re competitors – they better be (playing for that)," he said. "That’s why they’re wearing a uniform. As a coach, the first goal is always to win your league. To get better every day, take it game by game, but your first goal is to win your league. Then the second goal is to get into a tournament and do well in the tournament and try to win a national championship. For us, it’s a single goal – to win our league. So we’ve got to focus in on it."
The Panthers do lose guard Jordan Aaron, but return five key players from last year’s team – including preseason second team all-Horizon League pick Matt Tiby.
"The core that we have coming back, we are pretty close going through what we did last year," junior guard JR Lyle said. "The chemistry on the court with those (guys) will probably be easier and better for us as a team."
The program also welcomes the additions of East Troy twins Brett and Alex Prahl, a pair of 6-foot, 9-inch forwards who redshirted last year, along with now-eligible transfers Akeem Springs (6-4 guard) and Trinson White (6-5 swingman).
While they will be new to the court, they won’t be new to the program, having practiced all of last year and seeing the Panthers’ success up close. It’s not unlike what happened with Tiby and McWhorter two year ago when both sat out due to NCAA transfer rules.
The Prahl brothers are perhaps the most intriguing additions, as the last time anyone saw them play they were leading East Troy High School to a runner-up finish in the state tournament in 2013.
"They’ve come a long way and they are figuring it out, and when they do, they will be beasts," Lyle said. "We’re seeing glimpses of that in practice where they are figuring it out."
The Panthers begin the 2014-15 campaign Friday night down south at Auburn University, where the Tigers are coached by former UWM head man Bruce Pearl. It’s Pearl’s first regular season game for Auburn, and the Panthers players are expecting a tournament-like atmosphere.
That’s not the only big game on the schedule for the Panthers, either. UWM also travels to Oklahoma State on Nov. 21, hosts third-ranked Wisconsin – a Final Four team a year ago – on Dec. 10, heads to Arkansas on Dec. 22, and of course plays its usual home-and-home against conference and state rival UW-Green Bay.
"We play a lot of good teams," McWhorter acknowledged. "That experience just playing Villanova in the tournament, we know what to expect playing those teams – and playing Wisconsin last year – we know what to expect. We know when we come into those games we gotta be 100 percent focused and ready to play hard for 40 minutes."
Those are indeed big games, a couple of which are in the new-look UWM Panther Arena, and the team feels like those high profile contests will offer up enough of a postseason-type experience to soothe the wounds created from their actual tournament restriction.
Also, the team feels like the late rally last year after a disappointing end to the regular season just to get into the NCAA tournament will serve as inspiration for the 30-game "tournament" this year.
"We came together and we promised each other we weren’t going to go out like that and we just made a push in the conference tournament, and I think that goes to show that perseverance and just hard work can get you anywhere," McWhorter said.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.