There’s one thing I’ve learned about the Horizon League in the past few days.
Number one, Cleveland State and Milwaukee have separated themselves from the pack.
Number two, Milwaukee can only be truly separated from the pack if it succeeds over these next two weeks in games against Northern Iowa, Wisconsin, and Marquette without succumbing to a trap game against Nebraska-Omaha.
With an 8-1 record headed into the toughest stretch of the non-conference season, the Panthers have no blemishes on its at-large resume – the Michigan State road loss won’t be seen as bad once the season is over – but they also don’t have a significant victory on the season. Sure, teams like UALR have been to the tournament, but you’re not arriving until you’ve beaten a team that will end up in the top 100 of the RPI at the end of the season, preferably the top 50.
DePaul very well may be that victory, but the jury is out as the Blue Demons also have difficulties establishing their resume just yet. DePaul definitely looks better than they have in years, but seasons can go awry.
While Milwaukee doesn’t need to have an at-large resume to be a favorite going into the conference season at the end of the month, it’s certain that the favorite – the Cleveland State Vikings – already has a selection committee-wowing victory over Vanderbilt. And in today’s college basketball world, there are 37 at-large “brass rings” to be grabbed by 320 or so basketball teams (31 will be conference automatic qualifiers). That means you better have some kind of
I’m of the belief that a basketball program at the mid-major level, especially one as high up as the Horizon League, should not be playing four months of a regular season to throw it all away on one bad night in March. Never has this been more evident then this past season, when the Panthers won the conference regular-season championship and promptly gave it up on a poor shooting effort and inability to get Anthony Hill shots against Butler.
Thirty years ago, winning the conference is what it’s all about. And it’s still a great goal today. But the national champion is what every program strives to be, and if we’re already counting at-large possibilities out of the equation, then our goose is already cooked.
Milwaukee has an opportunity over the next month to establish itself as not only a candidate for the Horizon League’s top prize, but also a possible at-large team and, dare I say it, ranked team. To go into Christmas at 12-1 would absolutely net a top 25 ranking, and while almost no one expects the Panthers to win all four games, attaining a split or better would do just fine.
The fact is that there are three teams here – UNI, UW, and MU – that have done very well for themselves in the early season. No team we’ve beaten thus far can compare to the three ahead, and to bag one of these, or hopefully all three, would do wonders for our NCAA Tournament aspirations.
The obvious truth is that a victory over UNI would not mean much to people in Milwaukee, whereas a victory over Madison or Marquette would mean quite a lot. But you have to take it game by game, and the program is just focused on going 1-0 on Saturday.
Take it one game at a time. That’s where you begin to see the difference between who is ready to dance and who is still tying their shoes.