The Milwaukee Panthers knew they faced a daunting challenge in Madison tonight when they traveled an hour down I-94 to take on the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers. The two teams have now met 31 times, and Wisconsin now is 30-1 in the series after a 78-52 victory at the Kohl Center tonight.
Bo Ryan is now 13-0 against his former team — he went 0-2 against Wisconsin while coaching Milwaukee from 1999-01 — and he has done the majority of his winning against his former player and assistant Rob Jeter. The Panthers’ coach is now 0-9 against his mentor, and while he can’t be happy with a 26 point loss, he should be able to take solace in the fact that his team did not quit against a team that some feel is the best team in America.
Jeter’s team already has more wins this season (9) than the Panthers had all of last season, when they struggled and finished with an 8-24 record. This may be his best team since 2005-06, when he led Milwaukee to a 22-9 record after taking over the team from Bruce Pearl, who left for the Tennessee Volunteers. Jeter tasted success in the tournament that year, as the Panthers beat the Oklahoma Sooners in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to the eventual national champion Florida Gators.
Folks in Madison were wary of Milwaukee coming into the game, as the Panthers had won five games in a row and boasted a lineup with four players averaging at least 12 points per game. Yes, tonight’s setback will sting for a while, but there are some positives for the Panthers to take away from this game. Kyle Kelm scored 17 points in 25 minutes as he shot 7-10 from the field against Wisconsin, which had completely stymied Joe Harris and frustrated Devante Gardner in the Badgers’ two prior contests.
While leading scorer Matt Tiby failed to hit his season average of about 15 points per game, he did manage to contribute 11 points — 9 more than Harris had against the Badgers, and Harris was a first-team ACC selection last season — while hitting all four of his free throws and grabbing five rebounds. Furthermore, thirteen players saw at least three minutes of action, and the Panthers shot nearly 43 percent from the field. Rob Jeter has plenty to build upon.
Milwaukee ought to enter Horizon League play with an 11-3 record, as the Panthers face Northeastern Huskies (2-7 despite beating the Georgetown Hoyas) and Alabama State Hornets (3-3) in their last two non-conference games. Once the Panthers get into league play, they will have to contend with the Green Bay Phoenix and potentially defending champion Valparaiso Crusaders, but with several other teams scuffling around the .500 mark in non-conference play it seems as though this could be a year that the conference title is ripe for the taking.
The Panthers have already defeated two teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season — the Davidson Wildcats and James Madison Dukes – and Milwaukee already has four road victories, so they will be confident on the road in conference play. Look for the Panthers to win 10-12 conference games (which would put them at about 22-8) and slug it out with Green Bay for the conference title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.