By Tim Gutowski Published Jan 25, 2005 at 5:11 AM

{image1} With Marquette's quick start, Wisconsin's long home-court winning streak and the general low profile of the Horizon League, UW-Milwaukee's men's basketball team has been easily overshadowed the first few months of the season. But once again, Bruce Pearl's squad is earning some attention as the countdown to March begins.

Thanks to Saturday's road victory at Detroit's Calihan Hall, the Panthers are in complete control of their Horizon League fate with seven league games remaining. At 8-1 in conference play, UWM owns wins over the four teams directly behind them: UW-Green Bay (5-2), UI-Chicago (4-3), Wright State (4-3) and Detroit (4-3). Only Detroit was able to beat UWM in league play; the Panthers still meet each of the others once more in the next two weeks.

After Wednesday's non-conference match-up at Purdue, UWM will face UWGB (Jan. 29), Wright State (Feb. 2) and UIC (Feb. 5) -- and only the last game is at home. If the Panthers take two of the three, it would take a collapse to avoid winning the regular season title.

But will that be enough to guarantee a bid to the NCAA Tournament? Unfortunately, no.

Despite a difficult non-conference slate that included road games at Wisconsin, Kansas, Manhattan and now Purdue, UWM was ranked only 95th in the most recent RPI standings. That's not good enough to receive an at-large bid.

Why so low? First of all, though UWM defeated normally tough Manhattan, the Jaspers are just 9-7 this season, which doesn't help the Panthers' strength of schedule rating. UW and KU obviously help in that regard, but UWM wasn't able to defeat either of them -- such a marquee win on the road can make all the difference for a mid-major team, even if its RPI is in the 60s or 70s come Selection Sunday. Even a possible victory at Purdue would be downgraded this season with the Boilermakers bringing up the rear in the Big Ten. In fact, Purdue (152) is 15 slots behind Manhattan (137) in ESPN's RPI standings.

Furthermore, the Panthers are getting little help from their conference brethren. In recent years, UIC, Butler or Detroit has gotten national respect and the higher RPI that accompanies it. But this season, only UIC (101) and UWGB (126) have respectable mid-major RPIs, so UWM gets little statistical help from dominating its league.

If Pearl's team manages to beat Purdue Wednesday and then sweeps the remainder of the conference slate, it could get a bid without winning the Horizon League tourney. Barring that, the Panthers will have to win the post-season title game, which is scheduled for March 8 (site TBA). And even though UWM will likely receive a bye into the semi-finals, that didn't save them from falling to UIC in last season's title game.

There's really not much point in worrying about that at the moment. Early in the season, Pearl banked on the fact that December's non-conference slate (including a 29-point drubbing at the Kohl Center) would make his team better come February. And he was right.

The Panthers stumbled with an early home loss to Detroit, but they've generally cruised in conference play since then, including a 30-point rout of Tod Kowalczyk's Phoenix, with whom Pearl and the Panthers have a burgeoning rivalry (and is it just me, or does Pearl have more than his share of bitter rivals around the college basketball landscape?).

Like the team as a whole, star guard Ed McCants has had his ups and downs. Suddenly a marked man in every opposing scouting report, McCants wasn't scoring in the way he's accustomed during the early part of December. During one four-game road stretch, he managed just 7.5 points per game.

But an impressive 26-point performance at Kansas, including six three-pointers, seemed to re-ignite the senior's confidence. Since then, he's scored 19.4 ppg in his last nine games, including a 38-point night in the loss to Detroit. And running mate Joah Tucker has scored 20 or more in four of those same nine games, giving UWM a potent offensive combination.

The Panthers are also pressing again, a defensive tactic they moved away from while Dylan Page was the team's go-to guy. They've been able to wear teams down in the second half, notably Wright State at U.S. Cellular Arena a few weeks ago, and that pressure also translates into the conference's highest scoring average.

In all, UWM is right where coach Pearl was hoping it would be when he signed up to play six consecutive road games in December. If the Panthers can finish the season as strong as they do most games, an NCAA bid is on the Horizon.

Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.

Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.