Rivalry renewed at Hinkle #BeatButler #HLMBB

There is a real opportunity sitting in front of the Milwaukee Panthers.  Hinkle Fieldhouse, the site where Milwaukee kicked off its 12-game conference regular season winning streak, will be rocking on Saturday as the Butler Bulldogs try to get a leg up in the early Horizon League race.  They see what we see; at 3-1 and 2-1, the Panthers and Bulldogs are not separated by much and Butler will do no worse than tie the first tiebreaker (head to head) with the Panthers.  At 4-0 and 1-2, Milwaukee puts the Bulldogs in a big hole to climb out of and keeps the pressure on Cleveland State to keep pace.  The Vikings play Youngstown State at 1 p.m. today.

'AAAAAAAAAAAAh'm frustrating to watch!'

The chance to go 4-0 with two of the hardest games of the Horizon League schedule behind them is a big deal for the Panthers.  But the Bulldogs, as always, will try and thwart Milwaukee’s plans.

Sometimes it just takes a simple event for a team to really get it.  Maybe it’s a discussion among team members about what they want their season to be.  Perhaps a coach makes an impassioned speech and the players respond.  It could be playing time; when someone isn’t clicking with the rest of the team, they might need to take a step back to really help themselves grow as well as the team.

For Butler, the game has really changed since Chrishawn Hopkins has seen his playing time dwindling.  It isn’t a knock on Hopkins; it’s just a fact that the Bulldogs are better on both sides of the floor when he is out of the game.  Following the Valparaiso loss, Hopkins’ playing time has dwindled considerably, and the Bulldogs have gotten better.  In his first eight games, Hopkins played over ten minutes in all but one game.  Since, he has played less than ten in four of six games.  In games where Hopkins plays less than five minutes, the Bulldogs are 3-0 against Stanford, Purdue and Green Bay.  If he plays more than five, the Dawgs are 4-7.

The Bulldogs are significantly better with this guy on the bench.

Beyond Hopkins, the Bulldogs are still up and down when shooting the ball.  Their shooting percentage hit a recent high of 46.4% against Stanford (they eclipsed that plateau in the opener against Evansville and against Oakland City), but they haven’t been shooting like the normal Butler team shoots.  Missing players like Zach Hahn, Shelvin Mack, and Matt Howard has done two things. First, taking away those good shooters automatically lowers your percentages.  Second, the void of those players, specifically Mack and Howard, means that defenses haven’t had to commit more than the normal attention to any one player, so while Chase Stigall had much more free reign to take open shots last season, he’s not getting those open shots because defenses aren’t sagging off him in an attempt to stop pros that have now cycled out of the program.

The Bulldogs rely heavily on Andrew Smith to be a playmaker, and they’ve gotten a mixed bag. Some games he’s flourished, like he’s done against Evansville, Chattanooga, and Oakland City.  Other times, he is a complete non-factor, as you can see in games like Valpo, Ball State and Gonzaga.  But usually, you’re going to get the same kind of stats he put up last year, because in a lot of ways he’s just a guy.  Thrust into the spotlight, he’s getting the same production he got when he was the fourth option offensively.

Someday he'll be a star, but Marshall hasn't the skill or defensive ability to lead quite yet.

A big disappointment, at least from my end because I loved watching him in the tournament last year, has been Khyle Marshall.  His production has been steady (9.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and he’s more efficient (55.2% FG, 33% 3PT, 55.7% eFG), but he hasn’t really taken the reigns like I expected out of him.  Marshall is a wonderful athlete with a great upside, but like any player with upside that means he still has a ways to go.  The sophomore still lacks the skills that will put him over the top in the future and make him an All-League candidate.  The other thing about Marshall is that he’s struggled to defend this season, which has put the Bulldogs in a tight spot.

Look for Milwaukee to take advantage of Butler’s weaker interior by taking it right at Smith.  If they can take the seven-footer out of the game, then they can really attack the inside and win the game that way.  Playing an inside-out game threatens their stiff defense and stretches them out; this is why it pays to have even your big forwards shooting the three-ball, but I suspect James Haarsma will get most of his points in the paint.

I don’t know who is going to be the X-Factor to help the Black and Gold win.  It could be anybody – Meier, Williams, Allen, Haarsma, Kelm, Richard, or Gulley – all have done it for the Panthers when others struggle.  That’s what makes this team so good. By having a bunch of players who can play very well on any given night, the Panthers are a very difficult team for which to prepare; it’s like seven different kinds of smoke.

Quizzes passed; exam is next

Michigan State poses a much greater challenge than the Panthers have faced this season.

One team is 4-0. The other team is 2-2.  Cakewalk, right?

Of course not.  Because that 2-2 team is Michigan State, and their two losses are to fellow national elite programs North Carolina and Duke.  They’re the rulers of the Big Ten, the team whose last year outside the NCAA Tournament was 1997.

So how do the Michigan State Spartans stack up this season?  The team has obviously faced better competition than Milwaukee has, with decent results.

Familiar face, new jersey - take advantage of Wood's weak perimeter defense to get open shots.

Michigan State is ranked 25th in the nation in rebounding with 42.6 boards per contest.  The team has been held to just 40.4% shooting on the season, 250th in the nation.

But what is it that makes this Michigan State team a tough draw for Milwaukee?

Speed, speed and speed.  The Spartans have a familiar face to Panther fans, Brandon Wood, in the starting lineup, ready to run the court with anyone in the country.  Tomorrow, Wood gets to see a team that ended his conference tournament last year.

If the Panthers are to win, they need to do two things – they need to get back in transition and they need to stop MSU from getting second-chance points.  These two pieces, in addition to the obvious effective shooting, will put the Panthers in position to win the game.

Michigan State is not the best shooting team in the country.  They lost games against North Carolina and Duke because they missed many open looks and forced several bad shots.  They won the other two games by playing the offensive boards hard, creating those second-chance opportunities.  If the Panthers can play the defensive glass hard and force their will on the Spartans down low, they can limit those second-chance opportunities and maybe, just maybe, control the flow of the game.

Tomorrow would be a good day for McCallum to keep up his great shooting.

The other part of beating the Spartans is to get back in transition.  Because they’re a marginal shooting team, the Spartans try to create better shot opportunities by getting defensive rebounds and making quick outlet passes to score fast.  Being able to put the defense on their heels right away is what gets Michigan State better looks.  If the Panthers can’t play the offensive glass strong and/or shoot the ball well enough to win, the day could be a long one.

Defensively, Michigan State is as big and physical as they are on offense.  They give up shots, but take defensive rebounding very seriously as it’s a big part of their transition offense.  Milwaukee can get open looks by taking advantage of their perimeter defense (see: Brandon Wood guarding Kaylon Williams, 2011 Horizon Semifinals) and making open looks when they get them.

If Milwaukee can do those three things – get back on transition D, limit second-chance points and shoot effectively – they will have a great shot to win the game.

Go Panthers!

Improve everyday – Texas Southern, 4 p.m. Sunday

As the Milwaukee Panthers wound down their time in the game against the IUPUI Jaguars, attention turned to Texas Southern, the next opponent to come through the Arena.  Milwaukee defeated IUPUI on Friday night to move to 3-0 on the season.

Texas Southern is 1-2 on the season, dropping their last game at Michigan State by 35 points on Friday.  The Tigers won their first game in the in-season tournament by dispatching Eastern Michigan 66-49 on Tuesday in their only home game thus far.

Ryan Allen will be key to slowing down Lawrence Johnson-Danner.

The Tigers are led in scoring by Lawrence Johnson-Danner, who is scoring 15 points per game and is shooting 47.8% from the floor.  Johnson-Danner also leads the Tigers in assists at 3.5 apg.  Omar Strong, who is scoring 13.6 points per game, is their second scoring option.  Strong has scored in double figures in each of the Tigers’ three games this season.

Texas Southern is 336th in the nation in rebounding this season, pulling in only 26.5 rpg.  However, the Tigers low rebounding totals can come from the efficiency on the offensive end; TSU is shooting 48.9% on the season, good for 73rd in the nation.

On the defensive end, the Tigers confuse opponents by throwing a number of looks on them.  They play the press often, using an 11-man rotation to keep the defense rested.  The Tigers also throw a lot of zone looks at opposing teams, switching frequently to achieve that confusion.

The efficient shooting of LJD and the other Tigers will be a stiff test for Milwaukee’s stout defense.  Since returning Kaylon Williams from the one-game suspension and moving Paris Gulley back to his normal position of shooting guard, the Panthers have given up 57 and 49 points in two games based on a wicked perimeter defense from Williams, Gulley and Ryan Allen.

Game time is 4 p.m., leaving Packer fans a lot of time to get to the arena once the Pack has the game in hand against Tampa Bay.

Lonnie Boga confirmed to PantherU on Friday night that he will be in uniform and ready to return to action against Texas Southern.

League vs. League – Summit’s IUPUI invades

Opponent #3: IUPUI Jaguars, November 18th, US Cellular Arena

Ron Hunter spent a very large portion of the past two decades as head coach of the Summit League’s IUPUI Jaguars.  So it was a bit of a surprise when the noted good samaritan took his feet down to Georgia State of the CAA last spring.  His replacement, Todd Howard, spent 16 years at IUPUI as an assistant and associate head coach, so the Jaguars have been prepared for this for awhile, but it’s still a surprising move outside of Indy.  The Jaguars are set at most positions and, unlike the Huskies who also went through a coaching transition, aren’t expected to fall off.

Alex Young will be one hard man to stop at the Cell on November 18th.

- Key player: Alex Young. The senior wingman does it all for IUPUI.  At 6’6” and 200 lbs., Alex Young is an iron man for the Jags.  Young rarely comes off the court, averaging 31.6 minutes last season as a junior.  The hometown wing was first on the team with 19.7 ppg in 2010-11, and no player in the country comes into this season having scored as many points as Alex Young, who has 1,633 to his name already.  Head coach Todd Howard had this to say to IUPUIJags.com. “He’s worked tremendously on his perimeter game and is one the premier slashers in the nation. Plus, he’s really focused on all the other ways to score, whether it be putbacks, getting to the (free throw) line and finishing in transition. In the jump from his freshman to sophomore year, we talked a lot about finding extra opportunities to score.”

- Wanted: dimes. Starting point guard John Ashworth, who led the team with 96 assists last season, has departed.  That leaves a hole to fill in the starting lineup.  Stephen Thomas could move from shooting guard over to the point, but that just moves the hole over to shooting guard.  That role could be filled by Sean Esposito, the junior who scored the most amount of points outside the starting lineup.  Sophomore Donovan Gibbs could also be that guy for the Jaguars if they wanted to go big, moving Young down to shooting guard.

- Sophomore Surge. IUPUI players in the past have blossomed as sophomores.  Alex Young did it, now San Antonio Spurs George Hill did it, and so did a slew of others.  Among the crop of sophomores-to-be, Donovan Gibbs looks to be the one to make the jump.  With an opening on the wing, Gibbs has the opportunity to move himself into major playing time this season.

- Long, athletic, fast. They definitely have big bodies – Cameron Loepker, a junior center who started at IUPUI, left, and came back, is 6’9” and 275 – but their real strength is long, quick athletes.  Christian Siakam led the team with 6.9 rpg but was extremely athletic in the paint doing so, grabbing 108 offensive rebounds on the season.  P.J. Hubert, Marcellus Barksdale, Nick Kitcoff, Gibbs, and Lyonnell Gaines provide Howard with a lot of long bodies to throw at Milwaukee’s taller players.  IUPUI has a lot more height than the average Horizon League team.

The Jaguars have been paced by Young, but fell victim to UALR 75-70 on Tuesday night.  The game was well-played, but the Jaguars couldn’t gain an edge on UALR inside the paint, being outrebounded 38-30 and giving up 12 second-chance points.

IUPUI guard Stephen Jackson was out of the first game but played against UALR.  Overall, the Jags are shooting well but are not getting to the line as much as they’d like.

In the early season, with the talent level they are bringing into the Cell, this is the stiffest test the Panthers have faced thus far.

Tip-off is 7 p.m, but join PantherU.com for a pre-game meal at Major Goolsby’s at 5 p.m.  Some IUPUI faithful are going to join us and it’s always a good time when fans from opposing teams can get together in good fun.

Arians inks the dotted line

Austin Arians of Madison Edgewood signed his National Letter of Intent to play for the Milwaukee Panthers, according to the coaching staff.

Arians is a 6’6”, 200 lb. small forward who had offers from Montana, Texas-Pan American, Cal Poly, Nebraska-Omaha, Eastern Kentucky, Wofford, South Dakota, and Belmont. The Panther-to-be also took an official visit to Pepperdine when he went out to Montana in September.

Arians is the first player of the class of 2012 to commit to Milwaukee. The Panthers have two scholarships remaining in the 2012-13 season.

Defending the double-bye

Milwaukee benefited from the home atmosphere of the Cell and the double-bye format, turning it into a Sweet 16 appearance.

When Valparaiso finished its first year in the Horizon League, the 2007-08 season saw top seeded Butler smash runner-up Cleveland State at Hinkle Fieldhouse on its way to a second round appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the fourth consecutive year a Horizon League team ended up winning at least one game on the national stage.

Meanwhile, two other tournaments were held in the midwest by comparable conferences: the MAC tournament was won by regular season champion Kent State, and the Summit was won by Oral Roberts.  All three conference regular season champions went on to win their tournament championships, with all three pulling in the NCAA’s automatic bid to the post season tournament.

Butler won in the first round before bowing out in a heavily contested game against Tennessee, but Kent State and Oral Roberts were both blown out in the first round.  What happened?  Well, truth be told, Butler was a better team than the schools in Ohio and Oklahoma.  And that’s the point.

Butler's easier road to the tournament was a small price to pay for a Horizon League National Runner-up

In 2003, the Horizon League adopted a new tournament format.  The top two seeds would receive a bye all the way to the semi-finals of the Horizon League Tournament.  The following year, the regular season champion hosted the tournament from the quarterfinals on, with Milwaukee being the host for four years in a row through 2006.  The idea behind the scheme was simple:

Get the best teams in the conference into the NCAA tournament.

It’s quite simple, really.  The NCAA selection committee has long ignored the cries of Horizon League fans that our schools are good enough for multiple at-large selections.  Hell, despite having 14 tournament victories since adopting the new format, the Horizon League has seen only three at-large teams, Butler every time.

The respect that conferences get in the nation is derived from performance in the NCAA Tournament.  If you want victories in the NCAA Tournament, you better have your best teams in the dance.  If you want your best teams in the dance, stack the deck in their favor.  This has been particularly useful for the conference in the last several years.

In 2004 and 2005, Milwaukee had the ace in the hole and nearly lost it both years, doing so in 2004 to UIC.  The Panthers were not selected for an at-large bid that season, and UIC promptly exited the tournament in the first round.

Coincidence?  Of course not.  The conference regular season champion has gone to the championship game every year since the new format’s inception, and except for 2004, that team has made it to the NCAA Tournament.  In lesser conferences, regular season champs are left on the chopping block because they lose early in the conference tournament.  The No. 1 seed in the Horizon League, however, faces its stiffest test before the title game against, at the absolute best, the #4 seed.  By doing so, it gives the champ as much of a free reign as possible on their side of the bracket, setting the stage for a nationally-televised championship game on the #1 seed’s home floor.

Is it unbeatable?  No, of course not.  Ask Gary Waters and Cleveland State if it is impossible.  But to win on the champ’s home court, you can’t be a flash in the pan, and CSU followed that up with their biggest victory in 20 years, over Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament.

The MAC and Summit regular season champions begin play in the quarterfinals on a neutral site; in the MAC, the champion has the same benefits as the 2, 3, and 4 seeds.  The Summit cuts out the bottom two teams and plays a straight up eight-team tournament.

By taking away the natural home court advantage, the best teams in the MAC and Summit lose a major advantage to neutral ground.  By also making the amount of games equal, the MAC and Summit champs have to run the same gauntlet as everybody else; if the No. 8 seed in the Summit gets hot at the end of the year, they’re just as dangerous as the No. 1 seed.

After proving worthy in the 2008 title game, the Vikings bitch slapped Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament.

This leads to a much higher possibility of the automatic qualifier for the MAC and Summit to be a team other than the conference champion.  The reason is this: your best teams should be good enough to get in on an at-large basis, so by getting in other teams, you multiply your chances of a victory in the NCAA Tournament.

Except there are problems.  For one, the teams at the top of the MAC and Summit are good.  Great teams come out of the tops of those conferences.  However, poor RPI in comparison to high-major and better mid-major conferences mean that the NCAA Selection Committee will look elsewhere for it’s at-large teams in most cases.  Even if the best teams were to receive at-large bids, the fact that they lost their conference tournaments means that they will undoubtedly be seeded lower than had they won, a fact that didn’t escape Oakland with the No. 52 RPI as it was getting pounded by 3-seed Pittsburgh.

The Horizon League understood this, and fixed the problem.  Now, if a team is good enough to go win on the champ’s home floor with the No. 1 seed only playing one game to the challenger’s three in one week, you know that team is the real deal.  Wake Forest knows it for sure.

Mark Lazerus of the Northwest Indiana Post-Tribune wrote a couple years ago that the Horizon League should change its format.  He was wrong on that, and the conference’s performance in the NCAA Tournament is proof of it.  The best team in the conference has made the NCAA Tournament seven of eight years since the format change, and the lone year also coincides with the only time the conference didn’t come away with a victory in the NCAA Tournament.

So good luck, and may we see you all at the 2011 Horizon League Championship game at the U.S. Cellular Arena. ;)

Top Five Dominating Post Players in the Horizon League

Post players, especially the good ones, are a lot fewer in number than the guards in the Horizon League.  Because of that, fans tend to remember post players a lot more; they’re larger than life, and fans get behind their big behemoths.

I decided to take a bit of time and try and rank my best post players in the Horizon League.  I did leave out a couple guys that deserve to be on the list (Aaron Pogue, for one) but I think I at least have a decent top five:

Anthony Hill can take over games.

5. Anthony Hill – You know I wasn’t going to get this list going without giving a heads up to the Panthers, and Anthony Hill is by far the best in the post we’ve got.  He’s got the biggest problem with sharing the ball among the post players here; not because he doesn’t share it, but because unless Kaylon Williams is on the floor, all five players are scorers; Hill won’t be the guy to score twenty a night, although he can.  Matt Howard cannot take Hill, flat out.  Hill scored 18 and 21 points in the two regular season match-ups, and 15 points in only 20 minutes of the conference semifinals.  Hill seems to save his biggest games for the biggest opponents.  He does have a tendency to shoot the three if given the wide-open opportunity, even though his ability is marginal outside the arc.  He belongs down in the block, where he has more post moves than anybody and can use them.  On a worse team, he’d be putting up 18 a night, but with the balance he hovers around ten.

He's injury-prone, but when healthy there are few that can stand up to Andy Polka.

4. Andy Polka - The Loyola post from Oshkosh is definitely the best rebounder in the conference.  He has a nose for the ball and the strength to push even the biggest opponents around under the glass.  The problem with Polka, of course, is that he should have graduated by now, but redshirted last year because of injuries.  He might have been higher had he been healthy, but Polka has been injury-prone for much of his career.  The lack of talent around him will be a problem for him this season; none of the other players on the list will be asked by their coaches to carry the load as much as Polka will be asked by Whitesell.

3. Cory Johnson – If this were a discussion of the best forwards inside and out, Cory Johnson may be #1 on the list.  However, this is all about who can dominate the low block, and Johnson’s jack of all trades status means he’s the jack in the post, not the ace.  That’s probably unfair, because Johnson is a pure scorer more than any of the players on this list, and he can go off for 25 on any given night.

2. Matt Howard – Believe me, I labored long and hard trying to decide who was number one, and while Matt Howard doesn’t have a lot of downside, I’m still dropping him in the two spot.  You’re more than welcome to disagree in the comments section.  Howard is the smartest basketball player in the conference; disagree if you want, but he knows where the ball is at all times, has great reaction on defense, and knows how to work the officials better than anybody else.  He can draw a foul from anyone, and it’s a good game; he shoots almost 80% from the line.  On the downside, he can be dominated, as we’ve seen with Anthony Hill.  But he’s consistently good, and that’s why he’s been all-conference three years in a row.

He's just a monster, the best post player for 2010-11.

1. Eli Holman – He’s terribly inconsistent, with games of four points against Wright State and 21 against Valpo. When I explain Holman’s game to people who haven’t seen him, I use one word: anarchy.  It’s powerful, it’s incredibly talented, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it.  If you gave him Matt Howard’s basketball IQ and Anthony Hill’s offensive post moves, he’d be the best player in the nation, I’m convinced of it.  He, above all the others, has NBA size (6’10”, 255) and the game to match.  He’s pure athleticism, the best post player that Detroit has had since who…Dave Debusschere? We’re going to be modest and say Ryvon Covile.  Holman’s 2.5 blocks per game last season are enough to prove that he’s one of the best defensive post players the conference has seen in awhile, and his nine rebounds are proof that he owns the area around the basket.  If coach Ray McCallum Sr. can get him going consistently, the Titans will be the best team to challenge Butler since Wright State got it done with VD and Wood in 2007.

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