Are the Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers
about to toss a wrench into the works? A win in Tuesday's Horizon League Championship over the Butler Bulldogs
would surely cause a dilemma for the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
It's also got to tear at the hearts of Cleveland State backers who will need to cheer on rival Butler in this one if the Vikings are going to stand even a slight chance of making it to the dance.
The selection committee isn't really facing much of a predicament when it comes to the Horizon League. No more than two schools from the bunch will head to the tournament, possibly just one if Butler takes the title match. Cleveland State's only shot will be a Bulldogs win at US Cellular Arena in Milwaukee coupled with several early exits by bubble teams in the 'big boy' conference tourneys.
Cleveland State coach Gary Waters seemed resigned to not going to the NCAA tourney following Saturday's 76-68 setback to Butler in the HL semis.
"In regards to can we go in the tournament and have success, I think we can. But the NCAA has to see that, and they like the big boys. That’s all they talk about on ESPN, so they got the right to help people move forward," Waters noted following his team's latest defeat.
While the Vikings were busy giving away the regular season conference title and No. 1 seed for this tournament by dropping four of their final eight regular season games, Milwaukee was storming into the picture. The Panthers closed on a 9-1 straight-up run, 8-2 against the spread, to force a three-way tie in the Horizon League with Cleveland State and Butler, each 13-5 in conference play. Milwaukee won the tiebreaker and with that the host rights to thsi year's league tourney.
The Panthers' stretch to end the season included wins and covers versus Butler, Cleveland State and Valparaiso, a fourth HL club that is going to see a 23-11 record relegated to the NIT.
Milwaukee took out Valpo a second time in the HL semifinals last Saturday, 70-63, as slight one-point chalk. The Crusaders were in foul trouble most of the contest, the Panthers winning the game at the line for all intents and purposes with a 24-5 advantage in charity stripe scoring.
Butler advanced to Tuesday's title game with a 76-68 win last Saturday over Cleveland State, the third time this season the Bulldogs defeated the Vikings and covered the NCAA odds for their backers. Four-point chalk, Butler took a six-point lead into the break and then relied on senior Shawn Vanzant to hold that lead in the second half.
Vanzant, fourth on the team in scoring with an 8.1 PPG average, scored all 18 of his points in the second stanza, accounting for all but 11 of the Bulldogs' final 29 points in the game.
The Bulldogs will be gunning for their seventh Horizon League tournament title, third in the past four years, so Brad Stevens' team is obviously experienced and tested in these situations. Still, there's a lot to like about the Milwaukee Panthers. Start with the fact they will be on their home floor with a very vocal crowd behind them.
Milwaukee also has a pair of outright wins over the Bulldogs this season, each as a double-digit underdog. The most recent was an 86-80 overtime win Jan. 23 on the road at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Butler was laying 14 in that one, the final score shooting well past the 137-point total.
The Panthers were getting 10 points at home on Jan. 3 when they trashed the Bulldogs by a 76-52 count. Butler never led in the game and had no answer for Milwaukee junior Kaylon Williams who posted a triple-double with 10 points, 10 boards and 10 assists. That contest stayed 'under' the 134½ figure.
Rob Jeter's defensive scheme keyed Milwaukee winning both regular season games, the first time since the 2004-05 season the Panthers swept Butler. The Bulldogs aren't a great shooting team to start with, but they were held under 40 percent from the field in each loss, combining to hit just 11 of their 39 long range tries in the games.
Milwaukee will need to repeat some of that – it's especially important to take Butler guard Shelvin Mack out of his game – to take a third straight from the Bulldogs. I like the Panthers if the oddsmakers are generous enough to give them five points as well as a final score in the 132-135 range.
ESPN will carry the game beginning at 6 p.m. (PT).