Excelling in ordinary space

Today, the Milwaukee Panthers men’s basketball team will be practicing at the Klotsche Center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in preparation for their road trip to Ohio.  It is a pivotal week for the program, as two victories puts us at 8-1 and one full game up on the next best competition if Valparaiso also wins its games.

It’s an extremely important point of the season, and it will test all the preparation that the coaching staff and players put into the week of practice.

It’s just too bad that it has to take place in the worst facilities situation in Division I.

This place is more crowded at practice.

Now, when I say “facilities situation,” I don’t mean that the Panthers have the worst facilities of all 350+ teams in NCAA’s Division I.  I mean that in addition to extremely substandard facilities, the Milwaukee Panthers have the worst practice situation in D-I.

Let me paint you a picture.

A basketball team is practicing in their arena before tomorrow’s basketball game.  They share the court with the women’s team, but with a full day they can schedule their practice at any time.  The students all have classes in different windows because they are different majors and have different times. It doesn’t matter, because with only two teams needing the court for practice, they can easily coordinate with the women’s program to find a time suitable for both teams to get ample time on the court.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the UNO Mavericks’ practice situation at Sapp Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Here’s another one for you.

It may be small, but the Jungle is adequate for IUPUI.

This team is getting ready for practice in preparation for a game later in the week.  They have players of all kinds of majors, so their ability to find time is limited to the early morning, late afternoon and evening.  They share the facility with the women’s team, who also has diverse majors in their program and as such struggle to find time on the court to practice.  Because they only have each other in the way, the coaches from both teams work out a schedule that gives each team ample time on the court in the arena without having to deal with any outside interference from other practices.

This, my friends, is the facilities situation at IUPUI’s Jungle.

Both the Jungle and the Sapp Fieldhouse double as practice and playing floors for the basketball and volleyball teams at their respective universities.  It doesn’t matter, however, because sharing amongst each other, they only have three teams to worry about for practice during the entire day.  They can bring recruits in as they please, and the recruits have a view of how it is really like for their programs.

Sapp Fieldhouse and the Jungle may not be ritzy, but they get the job done.

You know what isn’t getting it done? The Klotsche Center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The worst facilities situation in D-I belongs to YOUR Milwaukee Panthers.

That’s right. Despite making it to the NCAA Tournament three times in the past decade to go with two NIT appearances and several conference championships, the Milwaukee Panthers do not have an adequate facilities situation for their program.

Forgetting the immense need for a basketball arena for the purposes of this article, let me paint you a picture of the practice situation for the basketball programs at Milwaukee.

The roster is made up of many different majors.  Business, Kinesiology, Economics, Communications, and Education are some of the majors that make up the men’s basketball program.  As such, the Panthers have classes at all hours of the day.  Beginning at 8 am and going to 6 p.m., the players have differing schedules that make setting up a practice itinerary difficult in and of itself.  They could pigeonhole all the players into a certain major, but I’m proud to say Ol’ Alma Mater actually has student-athletes that pick their own major and graduate with degrees.

So, the variety of majors is problem number one.

The Klotsche Center is the home for the women’s basketball and volleyball teams, but it houses practice for nearly every sport on campus.  Baseball has batting cages set up at the north end of the facility.  The track and field team has a track around the arena that they practice on from mid-September all the way through May.  The volleyball team practices where it can from August through December, and the Swimming and Diving team makes short appearances every day to accomplish their stretching workouts during the winter.

Volleyball is just one of many sports that utilizes the Klotsche Center arena.

All that said, the only teams that don’t practice in the Klotsche Center are the tennis and soccer teams, who solved their own practice problem by laying down turf on Engelmann Field (sorry Mike, old habits).  Tennis practices and plays at the off-campus Paley Center.

So the basketball program has to share the Klotsche Center arena with a myriad of other programs.  Because all the teams are made up of student-athletes, they also have the lack of time during the day to get in practice.  So the pre-8 a.m. time and 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. times are shared between up to six teams at once.  I’ll get to the significance of 10 p.m. later, but know that the teams do not practice anywhere near that time because students need to eat, study and unwind at night.

If you meander on into the arena, say, today at 4 p.m., you’ll find the men’s basketball team practicing on the court that women’s basketball plays its games on.  Off to the side, in a practice court (not full size), the women’s team is getting in what work it can while sharing the arena.  The two teams are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling netting that masks nothing but does keep stray basketballs from flying too far away.

Around them, on the track, will be runners pounding away on their workouts.  The track team, unlike every other team, truly uses the indoor track year-round and it’s not unlikely at all to hear coach Rob Jeter trying to bark instructions out as a group of runners slams the ground five feet behind him.

In the north end of the gym, the baseball team (beginning in November and lasting through May) takes batting practice inside a netting with a pitching robot or live pitcher.  In case you don’t know NCAA rules, they use metal bats.  Ask Kaylon Williams how hard it is to call plays when you have a regular ping sound going on in the background. They’re loud.

This beautiful, practically new facility has no space for its championship basketball team to practice in peace.

They do this because there really is no time for everyone to get their work in alone.  It isn’t entirely out of the question to see a team alone in the arena for half an hour or so, but that’s usually on the weekend when school doesn’t get in the way. And it’s usually on Sundays, since the basketball teams play most Saturdays.

A big part of being a landlocked campus with limited facilities is that there is a notion of “Shared Use” for the university.  The school has nearly 30,000 students, and they use the Klotsche Center to its fullest potential.

By that I mean that non-athletics use also comes into play with the Klotsche Center arena.  Prepare yourself for this: Division I championship basketball players at Milwaukee are accustomed to being kicked off the court so intramural dodgeball can commence.  Yup.

This is another problem that, simply put, no other school has to contend with.  Tony Meier and James Haarsma regularly make way for Johnny College to play futsal (that’s what the Wave do in case you’re wondering) with his drinking buddies.  They usually have a funny name and they always come around when the program is finishing practice.

Basically, ‘you had your turn D-I basketball players, now make way for us intramural flag football players.’  It’s an absolute joke.  The worst part about it is that it should have been fixed five years ago.

That’s the time that the Klotsche Center’s “Pavilion” was completed.  Costing the university tens of millions and taking over a bunch of unused space on campus, the Pavilion has four basketball courts, a quarter-mile running track above it, facilities for the training staff, an athletics-only weight room that is considerably smaller than the all-students weight room, locker rooms for all the teams, the entire office space for Milwaukee Athletics, and a 700-space parking garage.

It’s a beautiful facility, if you avoid the soccer coach’s offices where the walls are cracked or the Assistant AD’s offices where the flooding of Summer 2009 displaced them for several weeks.

It looks like a pretty office building, but there's nowhere the basketball team can work alone.

The Pavilion was meant to spread things out for the university, because they identified the same problem we’re talking about.  However, instead of moving intramurals into the new gym of the Pavilion, they simply expanded the amount of intramural sports offered.  It makes sense, you know, because we have 30,000 students.  It doesn’t make sense, of course, because you have a basketball program that needs its own space for practice and recruiting.

But you say “Jimmy, how can that be bad for recruiting?” The fact of the matter is that prospective student-athletes want to see where they will play, practice and spend a good chunk of the next four years.  What is a recruit supposed to say when they walk into practice and have to dodge distance runners to get to the basketball court?

Perfect example.  When I was in school, I was friends with a couple girls on the women’s basketball team.  They were prominent players on the team, and I felt bad for them that their later years were squandered by the shortcomings of the team as a whole.  This one time, I was eating lunch with them at Burger King in the union, when they left to go meet up with a big recruit.  This was a big time recruit, a woman who was being courted by several nationally-prominent programs.  The coaching staff had an in with this recruit because she happened to be the daughter of a coach’s best friend.  The relationship was strong enough that she had taken several unofficial visits to watch games despite the fact that she lived out of state.  She developed close friendships with members of the team, and she was coming into town to hoop it up with some of the players.

The team takes her to the locker room, gives her a tour of the facilities that she’ll be spending much of her time in.  It’s late afternoon when they finally get to playing basketball, just a pick-up game so she can see first-hand how she fits in.  They get dressed, walk over to the arena, and get stonewalled.

You see, the basketball team can’t play when the entire space is being used up by intramurals.

In somewhat of a panic, my friends on the team take her over to the Pavilion courts.  It’s the early dinner rush in the gym, all four courts being taken up by pick-up games with waves of students waiting to play.

They had nowhere to go.  She did – to another school, where she eventually made the starting line-up and won a national championship.

Loyola proved with the Gentile Arena and Norville Center that it is committed to basketball.

Would she have picked another school regardless of whether or not the team would have found space to play a pick-up game?  I think we can be sure it wasn’t the only factor, but it was a major one.

At 10 p.m., it doesn’t matter who you are, the arena and Pavilion shut down for the night.  No basketball courts are available, the whole building is locked to everyone.  This is in stark contrast with schools across the country, where even if student-athletes share space with students, the players carry keys to get themselves into the gym.  Not at Milwaukee.

Just this past summer, I signed on to Facebook at 2:30 a.m.  Within five seconds, one of the players on our men’s basketball team said “what’s up?”  After exchanging pleasantries, he confided in me that he wasn’t tired because he slept eight hours during the afternoon and all he wanted to do was work on his shot.  He was wide awake, like me, after bar close because he’s a creature of the night.  Could he go to the Klotsche Center and put up some shots, work out his issues when he was able?

Nope. Klotsche is closed.  Tough luck.

Milwaukee gets hammered in recruiting on just this problem.  There’s no practice situation in the nation that is as difficult as it is at Milwaukee, and the sad part is that our fan base, though full of die-hards and ready to fight at the drop of a hat, doesn’t recognize this problem and hasn’t come forward to fix it.

Coaches from opposing programs know all about this situation.  They tell recruits that they shouldn’t go to Milwaukee because the intramurals are more important than they are.

It’s not just the lack of facilities, the lack of time to practice and everything that goes with it.  It’s the message the university sends to every prospective recruit: basketball is not a priority.

You may feel skeptical, that I cherry picked UNO and IUPUI to prove my own point.  The truth is I picked them because they are two of our low-major opponents this year, and even though their playing facilities are not up to par, they still outshine us where it counts.

I put in the research.  Three hundred and fifty-plus schools, none of which have a situation remotely the same as ours.  I could list every single D-I school and their situation, but this article is already long enough.  What I will do is give you a taste, tell you what the situation is close to home – in the Horizon League, against schools that we play twice per year.

Most of our fans know that if you go to Green Bay, you’ll find the beautiful new Kress Events Center.  It covers all the bases of the university’s athletics needs, including a private practice facility only for the basketball programs and an arena that doesn’t put on intramurals.  Students do have intramurals inside, but there is designated space for these events that have nothing to do with athletics.

The Kress Center adequately serves all needs: practice, gameday, and intramurals. And concerts.

In Chicago, Loyola just put the finishing touches on the Norville Center, which works as a training facility for basketball as well as offices for all the programs.  The basketball programs may practice on the renovated Gentile Arena floor, but they do not share the space with anyone and no person alive can say that Loyola isn’t committed to basketball.

On the south side, UIC built its Flames Athletics Center back in 1999.  The facility houses the Lambert Basketball Center that is all about Flames basketball.  Coaches offices, weight room, training facility, and practice courts give the basketball teams a perfect place to train.

Valparaiso’s ARC is old, it’s obsolete for a D-I program, but the fact of the matter is that it works.  The arena floor is used for intramurals as the first level folds into bleachers, but the basketball team doesn’t need the space as they have their own private court on which to practice.  The Crusaders’ practice gym isn’t shared by ten sports teams and intramurals have nothing to do with the space.

Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse court is where the basketball and volleyball teams practice.  The teams also have the two-court West Gym inside the arena to practice separately if another team has already taken the court in Hinkle.  By the way, in case you didn’t know, Butler has parlayed their immense success into an ambitious renovation of the old facility:

The Panthers’ opponents elsewhere in the conference also have superior facilities.  At Youngstown State, the Beeghly Center doubles as a practice facility and game arena.  They don’t have a problem practicing with their track team, as the university has built the brand-new WATTS Center for the football and track and field teams.  While they haven’t given the basketball team a new facility, the teams don’t have a problem finding time on the court and they don’t have an issue convincing anyone that the university is committed to athletics:

Detroit has a similar situation with Calihan Hall.  The Titans probably have the closest situation to Milwaukee, as the playing facility and practice facility are the same and it also hosts intramural contests.  However, only three teams practice in the facility – men’s and women’s basketball, and volleyball – and the intramurals that do go on likely don’t cover the sheer volume of Milwaukee, as you’re talking about a difference of 5,500 students.

Cleveland State University makes money with the CSU Convocation Center, the home of Vikings basketball.  The Wolstein Center puts on concerts and other major events to go along with basketball, but the Vikings don’t practice on the arena floor.  They instead practice in Woodling Gym, the former home of the basketball program that still houses the volleyball and wrestling programs.  If those teams have matches, the basketball team just moves to the game arena.  It’s a cinch.

Welcome to the basketball-only home of the Wright State Raiders.

The school that probably has the best basketball facilities situation is Wright State.  The Raiders play in the Nutter Center, an on-campus university owned facility.  WSU built the Setzer Pavilion just a few years ago, and it is the crown jewel of the program.  The Raiders men’s and women’s basketball teams are the only teams that occupy the Setzer Pavilion, and they each have their own locker rooms, lounge areas, recruiting areas, film rooms and practice courts.  The coaching staffs have their offices inside the facility too, which is a great place to build a program.

So what does this all add up to?  Facilities hold the program back.  And that’s it. We can talk about the size of the crowds all we want, but Gonzaga played in front of 4,000 regularly before hitting national prominence with their Elite Eight in 1999.

The coaching staff uses literally everything else as positives to recruit players.  The university is no academic juggernaut, but it is tons of miles ahead of where it was just five years ago and only figures to get better through the amazing work our faculty does.  Milwaukee is a great city in which to spend your college years.  The Panthers are a great group of kids – each and every one of them is someone that I’d be willing to let babysit my unborn child.

The coaching staff is diverse, they are a sincere, likable group of guys, and they care about the players in their program and the fans that attend their games.

There is literally nothing negative about the Milwaukee Panthers program, except for the facilities.

So let’s stop talking.  Rick Costello and Mike Lovell have been in their positions for a year or so.  The students are giving $25 each per semester to help cover the costs of building an arena on campus.  The Student Association, a long time enemy of the program, became the Panthers’ best friend with the segregated fee increase that will buy the program out of its debt.

Meanwhile, the Panthers keep winning.  Winning despite the fact that they’ve been turned away by Paul Jesperson, Chip Rank, Josh Gasser and other recruits because of our facilities problems.  Winning in spite of the lack of practice space and time and lack of demonstrated commitment from the administration.  I know that the administration is committed to the program.  There is no questioning it.  But the mere perception is all opposing coaches need to use our facilities situation against us.

If I ever have a vote for National Coach of the Year, I’ll vote for Rob Jeter as long as he keeps beating the teams that have far greater advantages in facilities than Milwaukee.  I’ll vote for Rob Jeter as long as he does so much with so little time and space.

The truth is, we’ve been talking about this arena and practice facility for way too long.  These facilities should have been built in the early 1990’s when we moved to Division I.  These facilities should have been built when Bruce Pearl’s team was full court pressing its way to the Sweet 16.  These facilities should have been built when the Panthers were being rebuilt brick by brick into the CHAMPIONS you see on the court each and every night.

So get it done.  We’re done talking.  The time to act is now.

It’s time to represent the Black and Gold.

____________________________________________

If you would like to donate to the construction of a new arena and practice facility, please e-mail Associate Athletic Director for Development Clare Thompson at thompsoc@uwm.edu or call her at 414.229.7153.

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4 Responses

  1. You really don’t know as much as you think you do Jimmy. Some of your articles are nice but a large majority just make me nauseous because of the inaccuracies that you present as fact.

  2. Everything you said about the teams practicing at the same time is false. Also, all student-athletes have varied majors at every college in every division. This is nothing unique.

  3. As far as the varied majors, that’s one thing I’ll give you. But you’re high if you think those teams don’t practice at the same time. It’s not every day, but it’s fairly often.

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