Defending the double-bye

Milwaukee benefited from the home atmosphere of the Cell and the double-bye format, turning it into a Sweet 16 appearance.

When Valparaiso finished its first year in the Horizon League, the 2007-08 season saw top seeded Butler smash runner-up Cleveland State at Hinkle Fieldhouse on its way to a second round appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the fourth consecutive year a Horizon League team ended up winning at least one game on the national stage.

Meanwhile, two other tournaments were held in the midwest by comparable conferences: the MAC tournament was won by regular season champion Kent State, and the Summit was won by Oral Roberts.  All three conference regular season champions went on to win their tournament championships, with all three pulling in the NCAA’s automatic bid to the post season tournament.

Butler won in the first round before bowing out in a heavily contested game against Tennessee, but Kent State and Oral Roberts were both blown out in the first round.  What happened?  Well, truth be told, Butler was a better team than the schools in Ohio and Oklahoma.  And that’s the point.

Butler's easier road to the tournament was a small price to pay for a Horizon League National Runner-up

In 2003, the Horizon League adopted a new tournament format.  The top two seeds would receive a bye all the way to the semi-finals of the Horizon League Tournament.  The following year, the regular season champion hosted the tournament from the quarterfinals on, with Milwaukee being the host for four years in a row through 2006.  The idea behind the scheme was simple:

Get the best teams in the conference into the NCAA tournament.

It’s quite simple, really.  The NCAA selection committee has long ignored the cries of Horizon League fans that our schools are good enough for multiple at-large selections.  Hell, despite having 14 tournament victories since adopting the new format, the Horizon League has seen only three at-large teams, Butler every time.

The respect that conferences get in the nation is derived from performance in the NCAA Tournament.  If you want victories in the NCAA Tournament, you better have your best teams in the dance.  If you want your best teams in the dance, stack the deck in their favor.  This has been particularly useful for the conference in the last several years.

In 2004 and 2005, Milwaukee had the ace in the hole and nearly lost it both years, doing so in 2004 to UIC.  The Panthers were not selected for an at-large bid that season, and UIC promptly exited the tournament in the first round.

Coincidence?  Of course not.  The conference regular season champion has gone to the championship game every year since the new format’s inception, and except for 2004, that team has made it to the NCAA Tournament.  In lesser conferences, regular season champs are left on the chopping block because they lose early in the conference tournament.  The No. 1 seed in the Horizon League, however, faces its stiffest test before the title game against, at the absolute best, the #4 seed.  By doing so, it gives the champ as much of a free reign as possible on their side of the bracket, setting the stage for a nationally-televised championship game on the #1 seed’s home floor.

Is it unbeatable?  No, of course not.  Ask Gary Waters and Cleveland State if it is impossible.  But to win on the champ’s home court, you can’t be a flash in the pan, and CSU followed that up with their biggest victory in 20 years, over Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament.

The MAC and Summit regular season champions begin play in the quarterfinals on a neutral site; in the MAC, the champion has the same benefits as the 2, 3, and 4 seeds.  The Summit cuts out the bottom two teams and plays a straight up eight-team tournament.

By taking away the natural home court advantage, the best teams in the MAC and Summit lose a major advantage to neutral ground.  By also making the amount of games equal, the MAC and Summit champs have to run the same gauntlet as everybody else; if the No. 8 seed in the Summit gets hot at the end of the year, they’re just as dangerous as the No. 1 seed.

After proving worthy in the 2008 title game, the Vikings bitch slapped Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament.

This leads to a much higher possibility of the automatic qualifier for the MAC and Summit to be a team other than the conference champion.  The reason is this: your best teams should be good enough to get in on an at-large basis, so by getting in other teams, you multiply your chances of a victory in the NCAA Tournament.

Except there are problems.  For one, the teams at the top of the MAC and Summit are good.  Great teams come out of the tops of those conferences.  However, poor RPI in comparison to high-major and better mid-major conferences mean that the NCAA Selection Committee will look elsewhere for it’s at-large teams in most cases.  Even if the best teams were to receive at-large bids, the fact that they lost their conference tournaments means that they will undoubtedly be seeded lower than had they won, a fact that didn’t escape Oakland with the No. 52 RPI as it was getting pounded by 3-seed Pittsburgh.

The Horizon League understood this, and fixed the problem.  Now, if a team is good enough to go win on the champ’s home floor with the No. 1 seed only playing one game to the challenger’s three in one week, you know that team is the real deal.  Wake Forest knows it for sure.

Mark Lazerus of the Northwest Indiana Post-Tribune wrote a couple years ago that the Horizon League should change its format.  He was wrong on that, and the conference’s performance in the NCAA Tournament is proof of it.  The best team in the conference has made the NCAA Tournament seven of eight years since the format change, and the lone year also coincides with the only time the conference didn’t come away with a victory in the NCAA Tournament.

So good luck, and may we see you all at the 2011 Horizon League Championship game at the U.S. Cellular Arena. 😉

What’s next for UIC?

By now, if you’re a new and loyal follower of PantherU or happen to stumble across a fan message board for a Horizon League school, you’re well aware that Jimmy Collins has left the Flames for retirement.  Unlike his last leave, he has left no doubt as to whether or not this is permanent.  I’m a Packer fan, so I know that until that position is filled, UIC fans need to wait with bated breath or #4 might be running out of that tunnel…errr, Jimmy Collins could be walking out of the locker room.

Jimmy Collins when he took the UIC job

I’m about 95% sure, however, that this is the end of the JC era at UIC.  There is no way a coach can leave three months before practice starts and not hurt the team, but in the long run this is the best thing for both parties.  Leaving on his own terms, Jimmy Collins does not soil his reputation on campus and in the city, and that’s good.  He deserves that.  UIC, on the other hand, can go out and get the coach they want, albeit from a much smaller pool than had he left in April, but more on that later.

Reading the comments on the UIC fan board, I understand where a lot of them are coming from.  In essence, Collins has had the team handcuffed for at least three years now.  The amount of defections from the Flames the last few years has made Milwaukee’s 2007-08 season look tame.  But they shouldn’t throw stones at Jimmy Collins for the end of his tenure.

Instead, they should be honoring him.  Let’s face it; Collins has done the school no favors by sticking around a decent amount of time longer than he should have.  But that doesn’t change the fact that before Jimmy came along, the Flames were barely a D-I program.  Since then, he’s taken them to four postseason appearances, including three NCAA tourney stops.  He is the all-time wins leader at UIC, and his players are some of the best the school has ever had: Cedric Banks, Josh Mayo, Scott Vandermeer, Martell Bailey, Elliott Poole, the list goes on.

I don’t think you can name the court after the coach, since he never won a game in the NCAA tournament.  But some recognition of coach Collins would be nice; he took them places they’ve never been, and remains a UIC guy first and foremost.

The program, on the other hand, is reeling.  The idea of Collins continuing to coach even into this next season was enough to douse a lot of Flames.  But with the retirement of their formidable coach, they have a pretty great opportunity.  Athletic Director Jim Schmidt is staring at the biggest test of his career: finding the coach that can take UIC to the next level.

For prospective coaches, UIC is a hell of an opportunity.  DePaul, for decades, was the queen bee in a city that produces a sickening amount of talent.  Except for one glorious year in the mid-80’s, Loyola basketball has largely been irrelevant.  Northwestern and Chicago State have never been to the tournament, although the Wildcats have gotten close recently.  Every team has had their difficulties, but no team has taken charge and been the torch-bearer for the city.  Get it?  Take the torch and run with it, Flames.

UIC has an advantage that the other schools in the city don’t have (save for CSU), and that’s the fact that they are a public school.  UIC has decent admission standards, but dynamite players from the Chicago Public League that won’t be able to get in at DePaul, Loyola, or Northwestern can find a home in the Pavilion.

The Flames just lost Tracy Dildy to the head coaching job at Chicago State, and he’s wasted no time in recruiting the CPL heavily.  Dildy is armed with a very nice arena (read the description from their athletics website, it’s priceless: “…will make this facility the best that the city of Chicago or the state of Illinois has ever seen.”), a relatively clean roster, and notoriously lax academic requirements.  He has the opportunity to make CSU the premier program in Chicago…

Please.  Tracy Dildy spent the last couple years at UIC, and once it was clear to him that he wasn’t the heir apparent anymore, he took the CSU job.  I hope he does well; fans of Chicago State may have many things said to them, but you can’t deny that they’re loyal, and that kind of loyalty deserves some results.  But let’s get real – Dildy’s facing an uphill battle.  UIC has been there before, they have the more prestigious school, and they are the biggest in Illinois this side of UC.  Add in the on-campus arena with major recent upgrades, and the Flames are one great coach away from being a contender by 2012-13.

DePaul was pushed to hire a coach with significant ties to the CPL, but shied away from the city and chose Oliver Purnell from Clemson.  While he’s a great hire, one has to wonder whether or not he can get DePaul successful in a conference that boasts 15 teams ahead of him on the curve.  Look, Jerry Wainwright, while not perfect, is not a bad coach.  In many respects, DePaul is a bad job.  They bolted C-USA for a league they can’t compete in, occupy an arena that they can’t get students in, and spend a significant amount of money less than basketball-centric schools like Marquette and Georgetown do.

What UIC needs to find now is a coach that can recruit Chicago and the rest of the country evenly.  They need a coach who can formulate a good game plan, hires assistants that can do a decent scout, and become an ambassador for the program in the UIC population and the school in the Chicago population.  Basically, everything that Big D of the UIC Flames board says.  He’s infinitely more knowledgable on the UIC situation than I am, and his post, directed at AD Jim Schmidt, was impeccable.

So who is the next head coach of the UIC Flames?  The names I hear most frequently are decent.  Ernie Kent and Gene Cross are both coming off of firings at Oregon and Toledo, respectively, and I wouldn’t want to go that direction if I’m a UIC fan.  Mark Miller or Bryant Lowe, the two remaining assistants, would absolutely be a step in the wrong direction.  Collins did great things for the school, but the last thing they need is to continue with the tree that has been dying the last few years.  However, I believe that Dildy’s move is a sign that Schmidt wants to move away from Collins disciples.

Big Ten assistants very well could do the trick…I better say that because that’s the well we dug our coach out of.  Jerrance Howard and Jay Price from Illinois, Vince Taylor from Minnesota, and Howard Moore from Wisconsin are all listed as candidates.  But I’m going to put in two names.  One, everyone has thought of:

Could UIC look to former Illini assistant Webster?

Tracy Webster spent the better part of early 2010 as the interim head coach after Jerry Wainwright was fired by DePaul.  Before his tenure with the Blue Demons, Webster has made stops at Kentucky, Illinois, Purdue, and Ball State since graduating from UW-Madison in 1994.

From 2001-2003, Webster worked at Ball State for current Indiana assistant Tim Buckley.  He spent one season on Gene Keady’s staff at Purdue before spending several years at Illinois.  It was there, as an assistant to UWM alum Bruce Weber, that Webster helped bounce the Milwaukee Panthers in the Sweet 16 in 2005.  That could throw a little fuel on the fire, but who am I kidding, our fans are too blindly in love with Bucky to despise the former captain of the Badgers.

Webster would be a wonderful hire.  He has the Chicago connections, he has been a head coach-in-waiting for several years, and he’s a likable guy that the UIC fan base could adore.  But somewhere, there’s a former head coach that could turn into a dark horse candidate for the Flames.

As much as UIC fans and Milwaukee fans and Wright State fans may hate to say it, the Butler Way has certainly carved its niche much like the Green Bay Way did in the 1990’s under Dick Bennett.  Brad Stevens is one of the best young coaches in the country, some would argue THE best.  And he learned it all at the knee of…

Todd Lickliter.  I know what you’re thinking.  This guy?  He was a decent head coach at Butler, but no one can remove the stains of 2003-04 and 2004-05 from the record books.  The coach for two of Butler’s worst seasons in the decade, however, was also the guy who coached A.J. Graves and Mike Green to the Sweet 16.  Stevens’ near-national title was enough to get the Butler people to pony up the cash, but Lickliter’s Sweet 16 netted him a high-paying job at perennial Big Ten mid-level Iowa.

Lickliter could be roaming the sidelines of the Horizon League again.

He didn’t do a lot there, but the fact of the matter is that like DePaul, Iowa isn’t the most wanted job on the market.  Unlike DePaul, where they decided to invest in basketball with Purnell, Iowa hasn’t fully supported its basketball program since Dr. Tom Davis left.  Rumors are rumors, but when word got around that Steve Alford had raised enough money to build a $26 million practice arena and was denied because the powers that be didn’t want money to come out of the football program, that’s a tip.  Alford never got the support he needed to turn Iowa into a powerhouse.  The Hawkeyes, since his departure, gave the same low level of help to Lickliter, and got lesser results.  Meanwhile, Steve Alford wouldn’t take the Iowa job for quadruple the money he’s making at New Mexico.

At Iowa, football is king, and Lickliter could never have truly succeeded with that kind of distant fan base.  UIC, on the other hand, kicked out hockey, the only program that truly could rival the support for basketball.  Baseball and men’s soccer are big with the Flames, but if Lickliter could get the UIC community to buy into their own version of the Butler Way, the Flames could have something seriously special on their hands.

One thing I know is this. At this stage in the summer, coaching staffs are nearly full.  Teams are getting ready for the fall semester.  UIC should have a bare-bones talent pool to pick from, but they don’t.  They have a truly great group of coaches that are vying for the position of head coach at the biggest university in Chicago.

And that should make everyone else in the Horizon League a little queasy to hear.


This is the first PantherU Catch-and-Shoot, which will come out every two days and is a gathering of links, on which we in the information age love to click, about the programs in the Horizon League.

– Potential Milwaukee recruit Shaq Boga continues to shine on the AAU circuit, dishing out enough dimes for 3rd place in assists at the prestigious Peach Jam Tournament.

– Lindsey Willhite from the Chicago Daily-Herald had more information and commentary on Jimmy Collins’ departure.

– Shannon Ryan from the Chicago Tribune says that Collins plans on “relaxing for awhile”.

– Wright State picked up its second commitment for the 2011 class, 6’5” shooting guard Kendall Griffin from Avon, Indiana.  Julius Mays, the N.C. State transfer, was the first.  Griffin cited close proximity to home and WSU’s Setzer Pavilion as reasons he picked the Raiders.  Aside from coach Donlon, of course.

– RaiderFanatic from the WSU Proboard found this video of Griffin canning a three. Don’t get your hopes up to really break down his shooting stroke, the footage is shorter than William Henry Harrison’s presidential term.

– As you can probably tell, Paul Jesperson did not commit to the Panthers last night.  The Merrill star will ply his trade at UVA.

– Paul Oren of the NWI Times was there as Valpo resumed practice. They’ll be headed to Cancun for their international trip. No word on whether or not coach Drew will appear in the new Girls Gone Wild video.

– Butler has added Mississippi Valley State to its non-conference home slate. MVSU, like the other non-conference home games, will be a Saturday afternoon game.  Like days at Wrigley, I think the Saturday afternoon game at Butler is becoming a staple of the Horizon League.  I’ve gone to several of those games myself, and there’s nothing quite like it.

– Speaking of Butler, they offered Georgian Malcolm Brogdon following the Peach Jam.  Dave Woods at the Indy Star thinks he “sounds like a Ronald Nored who is a scorer.” All right, Dave, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

I don’t believe that C&S will be a daily thing, because frankly, other media tend to not come out with info daily on Horizon League schools.  For instance, the Green Bay Press-Gazette has nothing on the Phoenix since July 2nd, although that could be because Rob Demovsky is on vacation.

The Jimmy Collins Era ends

Jimmy Collins retires as UIC's all-time wins leader

UIC Flames head coach Jimmy Collins is calling it a career.

Just a week after associate head coach Tracy Dildy jumped ship for Chicago State, the dean of Horizon League coaches made his retirement official, leaving the only team he has served as a head coach after 14 years at the helm.

Collins racked up a record of 218 wins against 208 losses in his career with the Flames.

“It is difficult to leave UIC and the great student-athletes who are returning,” said Collins. “After much introspection, I feel it is my time to enjoy retirement and have more time with my family,” Collins said in a press release at

The Flames will begin an immediate national search for a candidate, according to UIC Athletic Director Jim Schmidt.  UIC becomes the third opening in Chicago this season, following Jerry Wainwright and Benjy Taylor’s firings at DePaul and Chicago State, respectively.  Wainwright was replaced by former Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, while Taylor was replaced by Collins’ right-hand man, Tracy Dildy.

Names that have surfaced in the extremely young process include Tracy Webster and Gene Cross, who was fired after last season at Toledo.

Tracy Dildy leaves UIC

Dildy leaves his alma mater without a clear successor to Jimmy Collins

UIC Flames Associate Head Coach Tracy Dildy will be leaving the program to take over the Chicago State Cougars, anonymous sources confirmed Monday.

Dildy comes to the Cougars from his alma mater after spending three years as an assistant to Jimmy Collins, currently the longest-tenured coach in the Horizon League.  Speculation that Dildy was a candidate came recently, as he has a reputation as a dynamite recruiter and extremely strong ties to the city of Chicago, CSU’s main stomping ground for recruiting.

Coach Dildy’s unconfirmed Twitter account posted on July 10th that he is “Getting ready to go recruiting, as a Head Coach!”  Calls to anonymous sources around both the UIC and Chicago State athletic program confirmed that Dildy will be the next head coach of the Cougars.

Sources requested anonymity based on the fact that Chicago State has not made a formal announcement introducing Dildy as head coach.  Dildy replaces Benjy Taylor, who coached CSU since the 2007-08 season until the end of the current season.  Dildy’s hiring brings an end to an unusually long process.  Taylor was let go on April 19th, and nearly four months later his permanent replacement has agreed to coach the Cougars.

There is no word on whether or not acting head coach Matthew Muhammad or assistant James Farr will be retained by Dildy as he builds his coaching staff.

In Taylor’s final season, Chicago State finished 9-23 overall with a 4-8 record in their inaugural season in the Great West Conference.