Keeping chase

Have you ever been to a horse race?

Even though it only takes one lap to finish – this ain’t NASCAR – the winner is not the sprinter, but the one who goes the distance.

We’re in turn three, only five games away from the finish line (four for Valpo).  And for the second time in as many years, Milwaukee does not control its fate.

Last night, Valparaiso emerged from the battle in Cleveland as the front runner.  Despite tying the Vikings in the loss column (3), Valpo swept the season series with Cleveland State and thus owns the tie-breaker.

It was a decisive victory for the Crusaders, a road laugher against the team many of us thought of as the top dogs.  Cleveland State’s aura of impenetrability was dashed quickly by Valpo, who dropped their high-scoring hammer on the Vikings.

If Panther fans were hoping for some clarity Thursday night, they were left disappointed.  Now three teams are within two losses of the championship, and five teams are within three.  Butler knocked out Youngstown State at the Beeghly Center, giving the victory for the night to the state of Indiana (no Hoosiers) and pushing a gridlock at both first and third place.

And then we have Milwaukee.  Banished to ESPN3 by the Horizon League, ESPN and their own failure in social media marketing, the Panthers will play surging Detroit with third place up for grabs, yet again.

It’s intriguing, really – should the Panthers lose tonight, the Panthers would find themselves in a four-way tie with Butler, Detroit, and Youngstown State.  Tiebreakers are a non-starter, as there’s very little chance that a four-way tie persists at the end of the season.

Milwaukee can put the slimmest of margins between themselves and the pack with a victory in Calihan Hall, their third in a row at the storied gym and in the process put any thoughts of them finishing out of the top six to rest.

The thing is, a victory at Calihan Hall shouldn’t direct your eyes at the rest of the pack. Instead, set your sights dead on Cleveland State.

Should Milwaukee go 5-0 the rest of the way, all the Panthers would need is for Cleveland State to lose one more conference game and they’d be guaranteed the #2 seed in the Horizon League Tournament.  I’m a big proponent of the “go 1-0 every game” philosophy, but it’s intriguing to know that all you need is one stumble from the Vikings to get the double-bye.

The possibility that Cleveland State could lose one more time (besides at Milwaukee) is intriguing.  They play a home game against Butler, a road game at Green Bay, and home games against Detroit and Wright State.  There are no Chicago schools remaining on the schedule, no bunnies to feast.  Their “worst” opponent remaining is Wright State, who is only four losses behind them in the right column.

So the championship is not out of the question, especially a co-championship or a second-place finish. Milwaukee just has to drop all the B.S. and take care of business – a victory every game from here on out.

 

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Ugly but they’ll take it

Free throw shooting once again reared its ugly head. So did a swiss cheese defense that allowed Ronald Nored multiple easy drives to the basket.

But the Panthers will take what they can get and turn it into a positive. Holding the Butler Bulldogs to just 17 second-half points, the Milwaukee Panthers improved to 14-8 overall and 7-3 in the Horizon League, 53-42.

Despite hitting bottom by shooting 6-for-18 from the free throw line, the Panthers gutted out the victory by playing stiff defense at the end of the game.  A notable performance at the end came from Ryan Haggerty, who stuffed home the dagger dunk but also won a HUGE loose ball on the other end to preserve the lead for another possession.

Milwaukee held the Bulldogs to 28.1% shooting on the night, including 1-of-16 from long range.  Strong defense came back, as Milwaukee gave up very few open shots, especially along the perimeter.

It was truly a team effort, as the difference between the fifth highest scorer and highest was a mere five points.  James Haarsma went 6-for-9 from the floor and scored 12 points, Ryan Allen scored 11 on 4-of-8 shooting, Paris Gulley had nine, and Tony Meier and Kyle Kelm each scored seven.

It was good to see Gulley get open shots – they weren’t falling, and he wasn’t shooting as much from the perimeter as he should, but he made big shots.  The three-pointer to put Milwaukee up six was the biggest shot of the game.

Also pleasing to Milwaukee fans was the somewhat return of Tony Meier. He scored seven points but hit two of his three attempts beyond the arc.  Meier also pulled down eight rebounds, playing Andrew Smith strong down low.  Kyle Kelm also had his best game in awhile, adding nine rebounds to his docket.

Kaylon Williams had a tough night shooting the ball, but again proved why he is the best point guard in the Horizon League by dishing out 11 assists and putting up the best +/- score (14) of any player on the floor.  The point is, Kaylon Williams is a winner, and he played like one tonight despite not having the best night from the floor.

Elliott Kampen’s three-pointer was the lone bomb that Butler dropped all night.  It was significant, keeping Butler in the game by pulling them within 37-33, but it wasn’t enough.

Shortly after coming into the game with about seven minutes remaining, Andrew Smith scored on a tip-in off a Khyle Marshall miss to bring the score to 41-38 Milwaukee.  That would be the closest Butler would get the rest of the night, as the Panthers clamped down on defense, only allowing four more points from Butler in the final six minutes of the game.

Milwaukee (14-8, 7-3 HL) faces Valparaiso (14-8, 7-3 HL) in a battle of teams with identical records on Saturday at 1 p.m.  The game is at the U.S. Cellular Arena.

Tipping point

There comes a time in every team’s season where the players on the roster make an unconscious decision. Either they continue to work the way they’ve been working, accept the status quo and take their allocated dosage of lumps, or they begin to work harder, make a stronger concerted effort to right the wrongs of the season and make their way into the light.

Milwaukee and Butler will be wearing special Military uniforms for tonight's game.

Last year, after absorbing yet another significant double-digit loss, the Milwaukee Panthers sat in a hotel room in Indianapolis and made a conscious decision to make the rest of the season their own.  You know what happened next.

Tonight, the Milwaukee Panthers stand on their home court, across from their familiar foe. It was these Butler Bulldogs that represented Milwaukee’s first victory in a line of ten conference triumphs that led all the way to the conference championship game. Then, it was these Bulldogs again.

On our court. Taking our bid to the NCAA Tournament.

I will never claim that the Milwaukee Panthers would have made it all the way to the Final Four this past March, but they certainly looked better than the national runner-up in two of three games.

It’s a much different team.  Gone are Shelvin Mack and Zach Hahn, Matt Howard and Shawn Vanzant, the nucleus of two Final Four teams.  Their replacements aren’t achieving at the level that Butler fans have come to expect, but they are far from a rebuilding program.

Andrew Smith can become a dominant force in the low block.

Andrew Smith has come into his own, scoring 10.6 ppg and pulling down 5.8 rebounds per contest.  He is shooting 52.4% from the floor, a number that proves defending him is much more difficult than it used to be.  He is much more consistent down low in the post, and he’s a stronger player than he was while playing Matt Howard’s wing man.

Roosevelt Jones, the 6’4” freshman wing, is an extremely athletic and talented player who handles the ball beyond his age and can make you pay with his ability.  Jones scored six points against Milwaukee in Indianapolis, but he was very much the difference-maker in a first half that was quickly turning into a blowout in favor of the Panthers.

Kameron Woods is a player that doesn’t get a lot of publicity around the league, but he should.  He is undoubtedly the best stopper of Butler’s younger talents, able to play strong man-to-man defense in the block or towering zone defense with longer arms.

The 6’6” forward Khyle Marshall may be the best player on the court for the Bulldogs.  Marshall, who burst out onto the scene in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, is a banger in the block who shoots at a high percentage because he just doesn’t take dumb jump shots.  Marshall is shooting 55.9% from the field, scoring 9.2 ppg and pulling down over four rebounds per game.  His weakness at the free throw line is what’s keeping him from becoming a real dominant player – his 48.5% free throw percentage would fit into Milwaukee’s roster unfortunately well.

Chase Stigall can still shoot from distance even though he's struggling this season.

He doesn’t shoot from beyond the arc, and that’s probably the biggest difference between this Butler team and those of the past – they just aren’t a great shooting team.

In the past, when guys like Howard would get eaten up on occasion, other players stepped up – Zach Hahn and Shawn Vanzant each had 20-point games against the Panthers.  Hahn did it from beyond the arc, but no one on Butler’s squad really does that.

Ronald Nored and Andrew Smith are an identical 13 of 32 from the three-point arc, which means they’re shooting 40.6% but also means that they’re not shooting much from out there.  Chase Stigall was a bomber early in his career, but since becoming the Dawgs’ main threat from the outside is only shooting 30.2% from three.

This Bulldogs team relies instead on higher percentage shots – drives to the lane and inside scoring – and takes care of the ball like we’re accustomed to seeing from Butler.

To win this game, Milwaukee has to take care of the ball. They can’t be loose with it, even though they might try to push the tempo a little more to get better open shots for Tony Meier and Paris Gulley.  They need to get the ball into Haarsma and Kelm – putting Smith in foul trouble is a must, because the Bulldogs just aren’t the same with him out of the game.

Most importantly, though, they need to rise to the occasion.  Milwaukee’s perfect back nine in 2011 was due to the team believing in themselves night in and night out, making every game a mission and a winning result the primary objective.

Tonight, that needs to be the case once again. Milwaukee needs to put the Bulldogs in their crosshairs and take a shot at redemption.  The season is far from over, there is still much work to do – and the work begins tonight.

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.

Horizon League Power Rankings (12.12.11)

This is a big week for Horizon League teams in non-conference play.  Some games on the docket this week include #15 Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Cincinnati at Wright State and UIC at Oregon State. Cincinnati/Wright State is a very intriguing matchup due to Cincinnati’s major suspensions from their brawl at Xavier.  Wright State has a real chance to steal one at home.  Milwaukee also welcomes a major rival to their home floor as they take on Jordan Taylor and the Wisconsin Badgers.  They key to this game for the Panthers is to avoid going cold on offense, and that will be a huge task with tenacity the Badgers display on defense. Still, an upset against Wisconsin would be huge for Milwaukee’s confidence as they inch closer to conference play, and could move them up to the top of the Power Rankings.  See where they’re currently at, below…

In descending order…

Free Ben Averkamp.

10. Loyola (2-7) – Despite their most recent victory, the Ramblers are a one-man band that will struggle to win more than 2 league games this year.  Without Ben Averkamp’s monster game on Saturday, the Ramblers would have lost to a Toledo team that is one of the worst in the nation.  That tells you all you need to know about where they belong in this conference.

9. UIC (3-5) – A more balanced win, but over a similar opponent as Loyola. Northern Illinois is a really bad team as is evidenced by their 0-8 record.  Still, UIC managed to win, and they can earn a “moral victory” by keeping it close against Oregon State later this week.

8. Green Bay (4-6) – The Phoenix had a tough week, getting blown out by Wisconsin and Marquette. That was to be expected, but they’re not exactly upwardly mobile at this point.  Don’t expect them to move up this list much in the next couple weeks, as their only game in the next week and a half is against Michigan Tech.  At least they won’t have any bad losses, right?

7. Wright State (4-6) – A win over Miami (OH) isn’t what you would call a “good” win, but to beat an in-state rival is always a good win.  The interstate battle continues as the Raiders host Cincinnati and Ohio in the next week.  There’s a real opportunity here for the Raiders to move on up this list…

6. Butler (4-6) – Yet another 4-6 team, Butler has been a disappointment so far.  We knew they would struggle.  The question was, how much?  Losing to a decent Ball State team is not what the Bulldogs were hoping for to start off a 4-game road trip that includes games against Purdue, Gonzaga, and Stanford.  The Bulldogs could re-enter league play at 4-9 with their “signature” victory coming over Savannah State (seriously).  Not exactly the start Coach Stevens was hoping for.

Doug Anderson's athleticism has been on full display.

5. Detroit (5-7) – If the key to winning basketball games was getting exciting fast break dunks, the Titans would be in the Top 25. Led by high flying wing Doug Anderson, the Titans are starting to play a better brand of basketball, but the turnovers persist.  Ray McCallum and the crew take on #16 Mississippi State on Saturday.  Their chances of victory are greatly improved by Eli Holman’s controversial reinstatement.  If the offense goes through him, there are few teams on the schedule they can’t beat.

4. Youngstown State (6-3) – The Penguins lack an impressive victory, and a loss to Buffalo is nothing to be ashamed about. They’re on the right track, but they have a long way to go if they expect to stay in this spot. The teams directly behind them certainly won’t be complacent.

3. Valparaiso (7-3) – The Crusaders can get a nice win over visiting Oakland on Saturday, and they are just a small step behind in these Power Rankings.  They have a very good shot at winning their next 3 games which would give them a 10-3 record before their matchup against Milwaukee in conference play.  Go Valpo!

2. Milwaukee (8-2) – The Panthers suffered a tough loss at Northern Iowa, but the UNI Panthers are a really good, tournament caliber team.  The Panthers can bounce back with a HUGE game against the Wisconsin Badgers on Tuesday.  If they can shock Wisconsin, it would be one of the biggest regular season wins in Milwaukee’s history.

1. Cleveland State (10-1) – The Vikings continue to win in a variety of ways, but they’ve shown their vulnerability.  Ten wins is sweet, but the Vikings have a pretty weak non-conference slate in the next couple weeks, so improving their RPI is probably about as high as it’s going to be (#38) for the rest of the year. At this point, however, they have the best chance of any team in the conference at obtaining an at-large berth.

Horizon League Power Rankings (12.5.2011)

What an exciting week in Horizon League action. Seven of the first nine conference games were within 6 points in the end. Such a great way to start the conference season.  It wasn’t all conference fun however. The league went 2-0 against the Big East as well. This league continues to improve year in and year out.

In descending order…

10. Loyola – The Ramblers are lost. There is very little to be positive about as they traveled to Wisconsin and were thoroughly outplayed in every facet of each game.  Without Courtney Stanley, this team doesn’t have a competent floor general, and I expect to see them stay in this spot for the foreseeable future.

9. UIC – The Flames could make a case here to be a bit higher. They played both Green Bay and Milwaukee down to the wire and even took the more talented Panthers to overtime.  UIC has a ton of potential with their undersized guards Gary Talton, Daniel Barnes and Marc Brown. Brown, a freshman, will be a really nice player as he continues to mature.

8. Wright State –  The Raiders nearly pulled off the upset against Cleveland State, but a loss is a loss. However, they rebounded in a big way against Youngstown State at home. The Raiders are going to struggle this year. That much is obvious. But they have to feel good about how junior transfer Julius Mays has played so far.

7. Green Bay – Hey, I don’t care who they played, anytime you can start the conference season 2-0 you have to be happy about it.  The Phoenix are a very young team and they’ll continue to learn on the fly. Seventh seems about right for them, and I expect them to hover around this spot all season.

6. Detroit – They beat St. John’s on Dickie V night on ESPN2, but this team looks rudderless. It’s no secret that Ray McCallum has been questioned as a head coach.  It’s beginning to look like he may be nothing more than a recruiter. Still, with that much talent, I expect them to figure things out sooner or later. Eli Holman was recently reinstated but has yet to play in a game. That will certainly change things for them.  He has NBA talent.

Kendrick Perry has played like a man possessed making YSU a threat.

5. Youngstown State – The Penguins were looking great to move into the top 4 of the power rankings until they blew the game at Wright State late.  Kendrick Perry has been outstanding as just a sophomore. He leads the conference in points per game.  Incredible that Jerry Slocum is experiencing a revival in year 7 at Youngstown.

4. Butler – I have a hard time putting Butler any lower than this despite their mediocre record. The Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker against Valpo in overtime and it puts them at 0-1 in conference play. It’ll be interesting to see if Coach Brad Stevens continues to go with two freshmen (Kameron Woods and Roosevelt Jones) in the starting lineup. The Bulldogs need someone to step up and score consistently.

3. Valparaiso – The Crusaders could certainly argue that they belong in the top two after the win in overtime over Butler.  Richie Edwards has been tremendous as of late and Coach Bryce Drew has a great trio of forwards in Ryan Broekhoff, Kevin Van Wijk, and Edwards.  These guys can definitely challenge for the Horizon League title this year.

Tony Meier adds a different dimension to an already potent Milwaukee squad.

2. Milwaukee– Following up a blowout against Loyola, the Panthers struggled against UIC late. It was a good show of resiliency and it proved valuable as they won their next game at DePaul despite a frantic comeback from the Blue Demons.  This team has a ton of talent and they’ll continue to gel as the season wears on.

1. Cleveland State – The Vikings continue to play well winning their first two conference games on the road.  It was this degree of difficulty that keeps them in first for now. As a basketball fan, I just can’t wait to see them clash with Valpo and Milwaukee.  Defensively, they’re a treat to watch.

#HorizonLeague Power Rankings (11-28-11)

PantherU’s resident Power Rankings player Josh Griesbach is out of town for Thanksgiving weekend, so I will do my best to take care of things in his stead.  It was a fairly predictable week for the Horizon League, with teams beating the dregs of the NCAA and losing to teams favored to beat them.  The real developments of the week were on the personnel front, as Detroit, already suffering heavy roster losses due to Eli Holman’s suspension and others, lost Nick Minnerath for what looks to be the entire season with an unspecified leg injury.

So, how do the power rankings shake out heading into Opening Weekend of the Horizon League season? Before I get into it, I want to be clear that I don’t believe we can put too much stock into rankings, as there are very, very few common opponents among the conference members and those that do share opponents haven’t brought much help (Butler lost to Evansville, who lost to UIC).  I will do my best, though.  Without further ado, my shot at the power rankings for this week:

10. Loyola. The Ramblers picked up their first win in their brand-newish Gentile Arena on Saturday, dropping Fordham 64-50.  The problem with that victory is that it is their only one and Fordham is off to just as poor a start as Loyola.  The Ramblers have two tough road games this week, first at Milwaukee on Thursday and then Saturday at Green Bay.

9. Green Bay. The Phoenix haven’t done much to quiet the critics about their growth as a program from last year.  Casting away a shows-us-nothing blowout of the University of Mary, the Phoenix’ lone win has come over a pretty good Wyoming team at the Resch Center, but they haven’t taken a victory on the road in four tries.  They are 2-0 at home, and getting UIC and Loyola at home this weekend could help them towards establishing momentum to swing themselves upward in the standings.

8. UIC. The Flames haven’t put together two good games in a stretch yet, but the victory over Evansville on Wednesday was a very good sign for the program moving forward.  Last year, the team had wins over Rhode Island and Illinois to lean on, and this year a victory against Evansville is a sign that at least something is going right.  The Flames take the dastardly trip through Wisconsin this weekend, first at Green Bay and then at Milwaukee.

7. Wright State. Of all the teams in the conference, no one has faced a tougher schedule thus far than the Raiders.  Billy Donlon’s club has gone 2-4 in the opening part of the season, and a victory over Jackson State is the only thing they have to lean on.  But the Raiders hung tough with Florida for 35 minutes on Monday and they lost a close one Saturday against a good Charlotte squad.  Thursday the Raiders could be getting yet another roundhouse kick to the chest in the form of Cleveland State, but Youngstown State is very beatable.

6. Detroit.  Despite going 1-3 on the week, the biggest loss for Detroit was not in the L column but on the roster.  Already stretched thin on the front line without Eli Holman, the Titans lost Nick Minnerath, likely for the season, to a leg injury at Bowling Green.  LaMarcus Lowe, who has never been a 30+ minute a game guy, has been thrust into that role and will have to do even more with Minnerath out.  Doug Anderson will probably be leaned on more heavily as well.  The Titans play at Youngstown State and Cleveland State this weekend, which could mean they could head into their national TV game against St. John’s both short-handed and 3-6, with only one victory against a D-I team.  That game, against Austin Peay, was by one in overtime.

5. Butler.  The Bulldogs don’t have a top-200 victory, but they haven’t had much opportunity to do so.  The Bulldogs have lost both of their games against teams better than RPI 200, and neither of them were close.  The 3-3 record is sadly one of the better ones in the conference, but they have struggled even in the games they’ve won.

4. Youngstown State. Jerry Slocum’s crew is taking care of business in the early season, although this is nothing new.  The only team they’ve beaten handily is a non-D-I Notre Dame (Ohio) team (18 points), but at least they’ve beaten the teams they should have beaten.  A winnable Penn State game got away from them, but they head into the Detroit and Wright State weekend on the road with a real chance to win both of them.  After the changes of the first couple weeks, the Penguins will show up in Detroit with the best post player on the court in Damian Eargle, and a couple days later will have the best guard on the court against WSU in Kendrick Perry.  If the Penguins go 2-0 this week, they’ll be 6-1 and a legitimate contender early on in the conference.

3. Milwaukee. There was a point, at halftime of the Michigan State game, where it looked like Milwaukee was going to win a difficult road game against a Big Ten squad.  They did throw the scare, but they didn’t get the victory, and that signature victory is what’s keeping them from the top 2 at this moment.  They still won’t have the signature victory this weekend with Loyola and UIC coming to town, but there is an opportunity to slip if they drop one or both games.  Loyola won at Milwaukee on Opening Weekend last year, and while that didn’t stop the Panthers from winning the conference title, it did make things much, much harder and they had to share the regular season crown with Butler and Cleveland State.

2. Valparaiso. Bryce Drew’s crew probably would be 5-1 if Brandon Wood hadn’t transferred, but it’s no use dwelling on the past and the Crusaders sure as hell aren’t.  Valpo’s got two tells-us-nothing blowout victories over IU-Kokomo and Holy Cross (Indiana), and otherwise is 3-2.  However, they do have two victories that put them firmly on the map – their victory at home over Akron would be the feather in their cap if it weren’t for a beat down of Duquesne, who de-pantsed Green Bay earlier this season.  The Crusaders dropped a blowout at Ohio State, but then again the Buckeyes are national title contenders.  The Crusaders can snatch a third signature victory by beating Butler at Hinkle this weekend, something they failed to do last year.

1. Cleveland State. Gary Waters’ team finally lost a decision this season, a 10-point game to Hofstra.  Otherwise, the Vikings have taken care of business, blowing out Rhode Island, winning decisively against #6 Vanderbilt, and winning close games at the end against St. Bonaventure, Kent State and Boston University.  The three victories over VU, KSU, and SBU rank one, two, and three respectively on the list of best Horizon non-conference victories this season.  If there’s one thing to take from them on a vulnerability standpoint, it’s that since the Vanderbilt game, they’ve really only won decisively against one D-I opponent, and that’s #253 Rhode Island.  We’ll get a pretty good idea of where they stand after a road trip through Wright State and Detroit to open the conference season.  Here’s one pundit who thinks they come out 8-1.