Golden Eagles, Panther and Value
Friday night had been on my calendar for some time. I’d waited a long time to see Marquette and UWM play one another, and the wait had seemed to make it worthwhile. While seeing a couple of in-state teams play one another is always slightly more fun, the fact that we had two teams in the same city that hadn’t played one another in nine years, and had developed a healthy dislike of one another in negotiating a deal to resume the series made things all the more exciting. This night had been circled on my calendar for a long time, and I had eyed up the game ticket in my Marquette season ticket book several times in the last few weeks. That’s why it hurt so badly when I couldn’t go to the game. Friday night I was still in recovery from arguably the most agonizing night of my life on Thursday. I don’t know what the odds are of a man contracting food poisoning on the same night that his furnace goes out, but I’ apparently one to beat the odds. So rather than finding my way to the Bradley Center on Friday night, I spent it on my couch (post-furnace repair), trying to remain lucid and sipping from a cool glass of ginger ale while I watched the game on TV.
Rather than talk about game points today (which might be tough, since I wasn’t all there while watching this one), though, I’d like to talk about the value of the MU-UWM series. I know there are people out there questioning how useful this series of games is after a night where UWM closed out the game looking like I did at 3am on Friday as I collapsed on my floor with roughly 3 ounces of fluid in my body, unable to walk the 15 feet from my bathroom back to my bed. But even though this game ended up being a 35-point drubbing, I think that there’s a lot about this series that’s beneficial. And that’s what I’d like to talk about.
Let’s start with the easy one–how does this help UWM? This game is all about raising UWM’s profile. The Panthers are a team that spends most of its time playing across the street from Marquette’s home to crowds of 3,500 fans per game. Games are fun, but with crowds like they’re drawing, they’re also somewhat of a niche product. The program’s light years away from where it was when I was growing up, the team had no TV deal, and there was only a vague recognition by anyone in Milwaukee that UWM even had a team (even I never saw a Steve Antrim-coached UWM team), but it still needs all the exposure it can get. And the Marquette game can help with that. Would it have been great if UWM had been playing Marquette a few years ago when the Panthers arguably had a couple of years where they had better teams? Certainly, but that’s not the point. Playing a more high-profile local program is always going to get more people thinking about UWM. Even with Friday night’s embarrassing loss, I’m sure there was at least one person out there who previously was unaware that Torre Johnson’s path from Milwaukee Juneau High had led him back to UWM. And that’s one person who might check out a UWM game sometime. That’s a win, no matter what the score of the game was. And hey, it’s pretty unlikely that these are all going to be awful 35-point losses for UWM as the series plays out. Teams like this take the lumps so teams like the sweet-16 UWM teams can get its chance to play in this series.
And Marquette–how do they benefit? I think the biggest thing about this game is that it’s something different from the usual early-season batch of cupcake teams that come to the Bradley Center every year. I don’t begrudge Marquette for bringing a parade of no-names through town during the non-conference season. Tom Crean gets slammed for his soft non-conference schedule constantly, but it’s not like he’s the first coach to do this at Marquette. Back in the early 1990s, Kevin O’Neill used to have a non-conference schedule that make today’s schedules look super-challenging by comparison. And O’Neill didn’t even have the Big East to pick up the excitement during conference season. So I have to believe that early soft scheduling is something that there’s just no good way to get away from at MU.
But when UWM comes to play, whether they put up a fight or not, there’s something for the team and the fans to get excited about. Owning the city might be something that Marquette expects to do, but the team’s still probably going to be amped up about going out to do it. And when you add in the dislike between programs, the adrenaline starts pumping a bit more. I’ve seen Marquette sleepwalk through games against the Bethune-Cookman’s and Utah Valley States of the world. I think they’re better off going out primed to crush an annoying thorn in their side like UWM, and as a fan, I know I’m going to enjoy that much more. Sure, I know Marquette fans aren’t out there clamoring for a game against UWM, but after all that’s gone on over the last couple years, any die-hard MU fan who says he doesn’t care just a little bit more about sticking it to UWM is as full of crap as Wisconsin fans who say that Marquette isn’t a rival (yeah, lots of things on fan boards make me laugh). At best you get a chance to rub something in your opponent's face. At worst you get a decent game. Sounds okay to me.
As for this past Friday’s game, kudos to Marquette for taking it to UWM. Personally, I’d have loved to have seen a more competitive game, but when the Panther starters start heading to the bench after committing bad reach-in fouls and Paige Paulsen can’t breathe because Wesley Matthews is bothering him so much on defense, I can’t help but be impressed. That’s the killer instinct that I want to see from Marquette every night. UWM’s better than they showed on Friday, but when you run into a super-talented team that’s extra motivated, sometimes things aren’t going to end well.