Earlier this year, all the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee men’s basketball season needed to make it memorable were four wins.
Four wins in the Horizon League Tournament, and life as a college basketball player changes. You get to hang a banner, wear a ring, be noted in the program history books and head to the Big Dance.
Rob Jeter’s bunch did that last March, improbably winning the tournament at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, before the dream ended in a loss to Villanova in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Now, to add to that championship history, the Panthers need to string together 16 solid performances beginning tonight at Cleveland State and ending Feb. 28 at Youngstown State.
With no postseason to play for, that 16-game slate – the regular season "tournament" that is the Horizon League regular season – is what these Panthers have been waiting for.
Looking at the team’s 5-9 record heading into conference play, or an offense that is struggling to score points, it may be easy to wave away the dreams like a morning fog.
But, few programs in the league – if any – ran the sort of non-conference gauntlet the Panthers did to prepare to this point.
- Auburn (SEC)
- Oklahoma State (Big 12)
- DePaul (Big East)
- No. 5 Wisconsin (Big Ten)
- Arkansas (SEC)
Of course, the mission was to win some of those games – one of those games – but to go on the road against all but Wisconisin created tournament-like atmospheres for the new players on the UWM roster.
"We’ve really building in a schedule where you look at us and say, OK, let’s put together a run of three, four in a row – it wasn’t one of those where we purposely tried to do that," Jeter said. "We looked at (this), OK, let’s really make sure we prepare ourselves the best we can for our league knowing we were going to have to fight through some adversity early. Not just physically in the games, but mentally, trying to get over the fact that OK, our season is right now."
"In terms of the schedule, I think we’ve been able to do that."
While the average margin of defeat against the schools from the "power five" conferences was 23 points, the Panthers have been able to bounce back with victories after the games against Auburn, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin.
But there have been some disappointments, however, such as the one-possession loss – at home – to IUPUI (3-10). And, there were the close losses to comparable "mid-major" programs like Oral Roberts (Southland Conference) and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (Ohio Valley), and finally, a blowout on the road in South Dakota on Sunday.
Senior point guard Steve McWhorter has set the tone, leading the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Forward Matt Tiby, the team’s lone all-league pick to start the year, has finally cracked the double-digit mark in points per game.
But after that, first-year players like Akeem Springs, Trinson White, Brett Prahl and Justin Jordan – even sophomore Cody Wichmann, who didn’t play much last year – are trying to find their niche within the system and in-game chemistry with one another.
The team has also played without forward Austin Arians, who led the team in scoring in the NCAA tournament loss, and who Jeter felt could add 15 points and six rebounds additional per game – and perhaps have affected the final outcomes against Auburn and IUPUI.
"They’re new," Jeter said. "So we really need to just get these guys ready, and I feel good about where we are competitively."
The non-conference schedule, Jeter believes, will have helped this version of the Panthers compete for the goal they set at the very beginning of the season, especially when they faced the "deer in the headlights" moments, including against Wisconsin.
"Our guys, mentally now, I think have gotten over that hurdle, and now we have to put it all together," Jeter said. "We have to physically become a little more sounders a a team to put it all together so we can get into the Horizon League and compete."
They will have their work cut out for them, though, as the league is competitive yet again from top to bottom.
Valparaiso entered the holiday with a 12-2 record. Youngstown State was barely above .500, but scoring 74.2 points per game. Oakland, just below UWM through Christmas in the non-conference standings, averaged nearly 10 more points per game than the Panthers.
Then there’s Green Bay, which on the road to beat 15th ranked Miami and has once again got off to a hot start behind future NBA draft pick Keifer Sykes.
Sixteen games. It’s a season, and the dream for UWM.
"Every player on this team returned. Everyone had an option to run from this, go a different way, or say you know what, let’s make this thing better, let’s stick together, let’s do this as a family, the same way we won a championship last year," Jeter said.
"Our guys have been in it from the beginning."
Now, they hope they’re prepared to be in it until the end.
"In practice, I’ve seen guys change," Jeter said. "I can see the attitude of more of a victim mentality, has turned into OK, let’s try to make something special out of it. Let’s do something. Let’s get past that. Let’s try to make something special happen. And that takes time."
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.