Can the Panthers flip the script and prove it wrong tonight?
There’s a line of thought that it’s hard to beat a team three times in a season in college basketball. Milwaukee’s quarterfinal opponent Wright State didn’t have too much trouble pulling off the feat with a 77-57 win over Green Bay on Tuesday that set up Thursday’s game against the Panthers. In the process, WSU exposed a major flaw in that thinking: even within a conference, there can be massive gaps in quality that make it much easier to beat a low ranking team whenever you play them.
I think the phrase needs to be amended slightly: it’s hard to beat a good team three times in a season.
Milwaukee’s struggles against Wright State in each of the first two games between the teams led to massive deficits that the Panthers had to spend serious energy trying to erase. In January the Panthers trailed the visiting Raiders 61-45 with 10:23 to play before a furious rally forced overtime, only to fall short in a 78-74 loss. The trip to Ohio went even worse for Milwaukee, which trailed 47-26 at halftime and looked to be on its way to a deflating loss before a late rally once again fell short. The Panthers got back within five late before falling 93-86. The end result was Wright State looking like Milwaukee’s kryptonite and becoming the lone team with a regular season sweep of the Panthers.
But it’s hard to beat a good team three times in a season.
After falling behind in both of the previous games against the Raiders, Milwaukee started Thursday’s action by rushing out to a quick 15-2 lead and never looking back. Milwaukee led 27-11 by the time Wright State hit double figures, with five different Panthers scoring and BJ Freeman’s eight points nearly matching the entire WSU team. The 45-27 halftime was nearly a complete reversal of the halftime score at the Nutter Center in late January, but the Panthers had a much easier time of finishing off the game. Freeman’s 29 points led the way for Milwaukee in an 87-70 win. Four Panther starters scored in double figures, with Ahmad Rand missing a double-double by a single field goal with eight points and 11 rebounds.
Because the Horizon League re-seeds its tournament field for the quarterfinals and semifinals, it wasn’t clear exactly what was next for Milwaukee. Northern Kentucky’s win over Oakland had already finished, but Milwaukee’s place in tonight’s semifinals was all-but sealed long before Youngstown State put away Detroit Mercy or Cleveland State pushed past Robert Morris. In the end, chalk prevailed and the top four seeds were the ones advancing to the semifinals.
And we found out that the Panthers will now be the ones trying to beat a good team three times in a season.
Milwaukee beat today’s opponent Cleveland State 81-72 in the regular season finale 10 days ago to draw even with the Vikings and Northern Kentucky in second place in the Horizon League at 14-6, and earned the 2-seed by sweeping both CSU and the Norse in the regular season. Despite the impressive win just a week and a half ago, oddsmakers are leaning toward Cleveland State in tonight’s game. Maybe they have knowledge that’ll be revealed when players start to take the court for warmups. Maybe they agree that beating a team that is for all intents and purposes equal with you three times in a year is a difficult task. Either way, tonight’s sure to be a battle for Milwaukee as it tries to pull off a 3-game sweep of Cleveland State.