It definitely wasn’t the score, no matter what you may think. It wasn’t the place, although there haven’t been a lot of happy memories in this particular gym. Nor was it the standings, which muddied and looked darker than just a couple hours before.
The truth is, none of these things were the worst part of Sunday’s loss at Wright State. The worst part was time.
As in, the Milwaukee Panthers are running out of it.
With another crushing loss in the books (this one due to point differential), the Black and Gold are looking at a major uphill battle to achieve their goal of returning to the NCAA tournament.
Make no mistake. That’s still the goal. Only now the hill is a big steeper. It started to mount that night seemingly so long ago in East Lansing, Michigan, when the Panthers played 38 minutes of basketball toe-to-toe with what is currently the #12 team in the nation in its home gym.
The hill got a little bigger after losing to Wisconsin, then Marquette. That one brought made the mound significantly larger, because there went any legitimate shot at an at-large bid.
Injuries along the way made it harder to climb the hill, steeper than ever before. Evan Richard, who you could count on for 20 minutes of fundamentally sound basketball with fireworks, suffered a back injury and missed most of this rough stretch.
Every thing that has happened, the hill has gotten steeper. Can’t host the conference tournament at the Cell, creating a potential “road” game in the semifinals? Dropped out of the top spot after missing a game-winning shot in the final possession at Youngstown? Head into Cleveland dejected, only to come out moreso?
It all adds up over time, and now the Milwaukee Panthers are looking at the possibility of playing on the road in the conference tournament just to get to the quarterfinals, something they haven’t done since the 2006-07 season.
So, with your only shot at the NCAA tournament to win the Horizon League Tournament, what can you do?
The obvious thing that needs to be done is win. Milwaukee needs to win, at least until they are ensured that nothing Wright State can do will knock them from that top spot. The Raiders still have hard games left, so talking about potential tie-breakers would be a moot point here.
Beyond that, any stretch run to win the Horizon League Tournament will require four victories, beginning on Tuesday February 28th. I say you mark that date on the calendar and consider something drastic: the second Milwaukee clinches a home game in the conference tourney, shut down Kaylon Williams, Ryan Allen, James Haarsma and Kyle Kelm.
That’s right. Take four of your starters and give them ample time off to rest up for what will be a killer conference tournament.
Milwaukee is looking at beating Wright State, Green Bay, or UIC at home. Then they would have a neutral court game against Butler, Youngstown State, or Detroit. A victory in that game would set up a road game or neutral game against Valparaiso or Cleveland State.
I know it sounds crazy, but if you get the Panthers as close as possible to 100%, does this seem like such a tall task?
None are easy games. Aside from Loyola, I don’t expect an easy game for anyone in the conference tourney. But a home game, in the Klotsche Center (Costello has yet to return my e-mail asking about the venue), packed with students? I know that it’s not the semifinals of the conference tournament and you’re not talking about the champions, but Milwaukee Athletics can really accomplish great things when it has got a big game to promote.
Say the season ends today, and Milwaukee has to beat Wright State at home on Tuesday the 28th. Do you think Kaylon Williams and Co. will be fuming about Sunday’s game? Maybe just a little bit.
That would set up a second round game at the ARC against Youngstown State. It’s difficult to beat a team three times in a season. Is it impossible to beat YSU on a neutral court? Of course not.
Beating Cleveland State, at Valpo, would be a tall task. But again, it’s doable – if this conference is guilty of anything, it’s cannibalizing each other. And Milwaukee, a healthy Milwaukee, would have a shot at this game.
What it all comes down to is getting healthy. A healthy Milwaukee Panthers program was the top dog in the Horizon less than a month ago, and that’s what the Panthers need to worry about right now.
If they drag this out, and the players find themselves tired and ragged going into the Horizon League Tournament, it could be a very short stay in March Madness.