It was an up-and-down season for the Milwaukee Panthers (17-13, 11-7), who take on Wright State later today in a Horizon League Tournament quarterfinal at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Considered by some to be a make-or-break season for fourth-year head coach Rob Jeter, the Panthers started out strong, but ran into a gauntlet of tough teams (Iowa State, Wisconsin and Marquette) and dealt with in-house adversity (the death of Jeter's father, disciplinary issues with players) before jumping out to a 7-1 record to open Horizon League play.
But just as quickly did Milwaukee find itself back atop the league heap, it fell right back down the ladder with a horrible swing through Indiana that resulted in losses at Valparaiso (63-51) and a 30-point drubbing at then-No. 16 Butler. It was a rough stretch for the Panthers, who shot a combined 39 percent in those two games.
Again, they'd recover, winning two more before losing all three games of a road trip to Green Bay, Youngstown State and Cleveland State to leave them at 9-6 with the No. 21 Bulldogs coming to Milwaukee.
That was the night that Jeter's bunch turned things around, holding on for a thrilling, 63-60 upset at the U.S. Cellular Arena. It was a balanced attack, and a game that saw the Panthers win despite blowing a 13-point lead in the final eight minutes.
"The progress this team has made, as a whole, is outstanding," Jeter said. "Now we have a chance to extend the season. That's all you can ask for at this time."
Along the way, Jeter and the Panthers figured out a thing or two about winning. Jeter found a system and rotation that worked - the insertion of James Eayrs into the starting lineup was a big boost - and the players learned to trust in their coach and each other.
One of the biggest sparkplugs for the Panthers this season was Eayrs, a 6-foot-8 beast of an interior presence that has a rare mix of muscle and athleticism. Since being moved into the starting lineup on Feb. 7, Eayrs is averaging 17.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and is second on the team overall with 11.5 points per game.
He's recorded 17 double-digit scoring nights, five 20-points games and has three double-doubles on the year. The emergence of Eayrs as a consistent threat has helped take the pressure off Ricky Franklin, Avery Smith and Tone Boyle. That trio has carried a big bulk of the Panthers' offensive load this season, with Boyle's 13.4 scoring average leading the squad.
Franklin had a tough go of things early, finding himself in trouble and missing one game after being arrested for drunken driving in November. He earned his way back into the starting five and has prospered since, and is averaging 15 points and nearly six rebounds a game in his last seven outings. He's looking forward to getting back to Hinkle and trying to make up for the team's last showing at the historic venue.
"It feels real good to go back," Franklin said. "Last couple years, we've been knocked out in the first round."
The Panthers' 77-68 victory over Loyola Wednesday night was their first post-season victory since 2006, when they beat Oklahoma, 82-74, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament during Jeter's first season.
Last year, Milwaukee lost to Loyola, 57-51, in the first round, capping off a 3-7 slide to end a difficult season. Jeter said it felt good to win this time around, but comparing this year's and last year's squad isn't fair.
"We were a different group last year," Jeter said. "Mentally and physically, we were worn down and beaten up.
It does feel good to win in the post season again. It's better than losing, that's for sure. It just shows progress for this group. We worked so hard last year to get to this position, but we just couldn't finish. This year, we've been able to finish and bounce back from a little bit of adversity."
A victory this evening would do little to ease things for the Panthers. They would next face top-seeded and 23rd-ranked Butler in the semifinals with UW-Green Bay waiting as a semifinal contestant in the other bracket.
Nobody wants to look ahead, but Jeter is happy his seniors were able to finish with a victory at home and get to keep on playing.
"Everybody else has a chance to come back, but they can keep playing. I'm excited about that," he said.
NOTES: UWM is 10-10 all-time in the Horizon League Tournament. ... The Panthers reached the Championship game four straight times from 2003-2006, and have won three of the last six tournament championships. ... Boyle was named to the All-Horizon League Second Team and joined Eayrs on the All-Newcomer team. ... Boyle has reached double figures 22 times this season. ... Franklin could earn another year of eligibility by meeting NCAA requirements towards degree completion. He was a partial-qualifier as a freshman. ... Should he return next season, the Panthers could return nearly 80 percent of their scoring in 2009-2010.