Today is the day. Today, the Milwaukee Panthers get to the halfway point of the conference season. Today, my friends, is why I love Horizon League basketball.
Cleveland State vs. Milwaukee. Waters vs. Jeter. Brown vs. Allen. Harmon vs. Williams. Pogue vs. Haarsma. Montgomery vs. Gulley.
This is what the Horizon League is all about. Conference heavyweights, battling in a huge match-up only halfway through the regular season. The Panthers and Vikings, both standing at 6-2, are fighting for their first-place lives. Valparaiso sits alone in first place after beating UIC yesterday, but that’s merely a formality as the winner of Milwaukee-CSU joins Valpo at the top.
Friday night, the Panthers got upset at Youngstown State in a game where Blake Allen played the first half of his life and Milwaukee succumbed to yet another debacle at the free throw line.
Cleveland State beat Green Bay by ten in a game where the Phoenix just wouldn’t go away. Nevertheless, the Vikings are coming off a victory and have the momentum against Milwaukee, a team disappointed by losing a game it should have won.
The match-ups all over the floor are some of the best you’ll see in the Horizon League, but one is real cause for celebration. D’Aundray Brown and Ryan Allen, at least in this writer’s eyes, are the two best defenders in the Horizon League.
Now, for the game itself.
Cleveland State is the type of team that can make Milwaukee pay dearly. Unlike Youngstown State, who doesn’t foul much, Cleveland State will almost surely use the Hack-a-Panther defense that has finished off Milwaukee against Wisconsin, Butler and Youngstown State.
Putting Milwaukee at the line is not a bad idea at all, and the Panthers have not made a team truly pay for it in a victory since Texas Southern, which is practically a year ago.
However, even CSU will only foul as a last resort on any defensive possession. The Vikings lead the league with 8.8 steals per game, 18th in the nation and tops in the Horizon League.
That’s how they beat you. Strong, relentless defense. Sound familiar? The Vikings also match that with strong free throw shooting and decent shooting from the field.
In past years, Cleveland State has broken down Milwaukee’s offense with a tough full-court press. They don’t utilize the press all the time, but when they do it reeks havoc on opposing offenses.
Despite struggling against it earlier this season, Milwaukee has become adept at breaking the press and we shouldn’t see too much of it from Cleveland State unless they get desperate.
Look for a low-scoring game – between 50 and 60 – that will come down to the final possessions.
After all, it wouldn’t be a Horizon League game if it didn’t involve a heart-pounding finish.