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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Icing the Penguins

There’s no room for error.

That’s the mantra of the Milwaukee Panthers from today until the end of the season.  It’s time for the Milwaukee Panthers to nut up or shut up.

Damian Eargle's ability to alter shots, not just block them, is what makes him deadly.

Last go-round with Youngstown State, Kaylon Williams missed a go-ahead three-pointer and Tony Meier’s second chance opportunity was blocked by Damian Eargle, giving the Penguins a 68-66 victory over Milwaukee in Youngstown on ESPN3.

That game was a tale of two halves – mainly, the first half that featured Blake Allen not guarded by Ryan Allen, and the second half that did.  Allen put the Penguins up big at halftime, and despite being shut down in the second half, other Penguins rallied and got the victory.

Tonight, it’s going to be all about making shots and taking care of the ball so the team can hoist up more of them.  Milwaukee’s offense this season, apart from a few games, is best described as “anemic.”  It has been compounded by the mass attrition due to injury that I mentioned Sunday, but it’s basically all based around the fact that the players we put on the court have been unable to make the runs needed to put winnable games away, or get back into games that got away from them.

Blake Allen had a much harder time shooting over Ryan Allen than Tony Meier.

At Cleveland State, the Panthers were only down eight at halftime by some miracle, and if they had the offense going, might have gotten back into it.  An offensive show has failed to put away teams, and because of the Hack-a-Panther defense’s unfortunate effectiveness, the Panthers need to score a lot more away from the charity stripe to mitigate their problems at the line.

The key to this game will be to take it right at their inside players.  Damian Eargle is an all-conference level performer, but he won’t be able to guard both James Haarsma and Kyle Kelm.  Kelm is too long and skilled for him to be able to effectively guard, and Haarsma is too headstrong and assertive for him to pile up the blocks.  They can pound it inside and force Eargle to do acrobatics to block and alter shots without drawing fouls.  Milwaukee needs to get back to taking high percentage shots, and if they can get Eargle in foul trouble, they’ll have a field day inside.

When I say high percentage shots, that means taking solely three-pointers if your name is Paris Gulley or Tony Meier.  Both players have proven that they are much better shooters from 21 feet away then they are inside – Gulley’s floaters particularly draw the same kind of swooping feeling you get when you miss a step going downstairs.

All in all, it’s going to be a difficult game if the Panthers allow Youngstown State to force a lot of turnovers and get up early.  Both teams have lived and died by the three, and unfortunately for Milwaukee they are 267th in the nation at shooting beyond the arc.

Should the Panthers come out angry – and I would, considering the Penguins are the team that knocked them off the top 3PT defense pedestal – on the defensive end, look for a stiff defense on the perimeter.  If they don’t come out angry, and allow the ‘Guins to make the extra pass that nets them the open three-pointers they’re looking for, then it could wind up being a long night at the Cell.

Panthers upset by Penguins

Everyone in the gym knew where it was going.

Blake Allen scored 27 points to lead all scorers.

Down two with seconds remaining after a loose ball pick and pop by Ashen Ward, the Milwaukee Panthers went to the man they knew could get it done.

This time, however, Kaylon Williams’ three-pointer rimmed out.  Rebounded by Tony Meier, he had his shot blocked by Damian Eargle, ending a 68-66 loss for Milwaukee at Youngstound State.

The story for Youngstown State was the out-of-body experience shooting by Blake Allen, who was 7-for-8 from three and 8-for-10 overall.  His shooting, especially in the first half, put the Penguins up 11 at the break.

Milwaukee got a herculean effort out of Kaylon Williams, who scored 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists.  He hit three big shots in the second half – two threes and a layup with a foul – within four possessions that cut the Penguin lead from 54-42 to 59-58.  Milwaukee took a three point lead at 62-59 following a Kyle Kelm free throw, but he missed the second and that was the furthest they could get.

Kaylon Williams rimmed off the potential game-winner.

The game-winning basket came after a missed shot by Youngstown. Kaylon Williams knocked the ball away from Kendrick Perry, and Ashen Ward scooped it up.  Ryan Allen was just a split second too late for the strip, and Ashen Ward put up the winning shot.

Milwaukee dropped to 6-2 in the Horizon League, into a first place tie with Valparaiso.  Cleveland State is currently playing Green Bay, but it looks like they are going to win and also move to 6-2.  Youngstown State is now 5-3, tied with Butler for fourth place.

Milwaukee plays at Cleveland State Sunday at 1 p.m. on Time Warner Sports 32.

Showdown at the Arc

NOTE: Sorry for not putting this up last night – while I was writing it, the Official Girlfriend of PantherU™ had some complications and we spent several hours in the hospital. No worries, however, everything is OK! On to the article.

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No, not that ARC. Valparaiso is on the road – the three-point line, sillies!

This is the breakdown.  Milwaukee – the Black and Gold owners of the #1 three-point defense in the nation, face off tonight against Youngstown State, the conference leader in three-pointers made and percentage.

The buzz phrase creeping up around this match-up, tonight at 6 p.m. on ESPN3, is obvious.

Something’s gotta give.

Youngstown State’s offense trots out four double-figure scorers and a fifth, wing forward Dushawn Brooks, is just .22 points per game from joining the club.

The Penguins lead the Horizon League in three pointers made and three-point percentage.  They are second to Milwaukee in attempts, but they absolutely are the most dangerous team from three-point range and will kill Milwaukee if the Panthers don’t defend the arc as well as they have all season.

That’s where the match-up is, and we’ll be following it all night.

Because I’ve been unable to sit down and write out the article as long as I’d like, I took about ten minutes to discuss the game tonight.  Please be a little patient, I’m under the weather and cough a few times during the video.

Slocum says Milwaukee is “Best in the League”

In his weekly press conference reviewing the past week’s games and looking ahead to upcoming match-ups, Youngstown State head coach Jerry Slocum called the Milwaukee Panthers “Probably the best team in the League.”

Slocum mentioned that the Friday/Sunday set-up was something that he wasn’t too fond of – we can all agree on that – but he did make some time to talk about the Panthers.

“They’ve got great balance,” the YSU coach said of Milwaukee.  “They’ve got a great point guard, guys that shoot the three, two really good kids that play really well in the post.”

Slocum added that Milwaukee has a propensity for making the big shot.  “They’ve had some really close games, they’re really close to having three losses in the League,” Slocum said.

“They’re very close to being right where we are, and everybody else in the League,” the coach told reporters.

What makes Milwaukee different in Slocum’s eyes, however, is the confidence. “They really have a confidence about who they are,” as Slocum was talking about the Panthers’ big shot ability.

There’s a funny part around the six-minute mark when a reporter asks Slocum about having the game on ESPN3.com, and Slocum goes on to talk about how it’s good exposure for the program and the players enjoy it.  Perhaps if it were ESPNU, coach, but I’m not sure we both see the benefit of being on ESPN3 – it’s not like you’re drawing a real national audience.

It was mentioned at the end of the video that Youngstown State started classes this week and Slocum made a funny joke.  “I’m sure they’re loving it. It’s been great for me. We practice, watch film, weight lift, shoot, more film. I’m sure as a group they’re sitting around and saying ‘man, let’s go study.'”

The Penguins host Milwaukee on Friday at 6 p.m. central time at the Beeghly Center in Youngstown, Ohio.  The game is on ESPN3, and get this – Greg Rakestraw and Jimmy Collins are the commentators.  This should be interesting.

Slocum’s full press conference is here:

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.