UWM vs. Cardinal Stritch: Opening the Season With My Old Friends, The Panthers
Ah, it’s finally here. I suppose I sort of kicked off basketball season a few weeks back on the opening evening of practice, but last night was my first opportunity to go to something resembling a game. Both Wisconsin (vs. Bemidji State) and UWM (vs. Cardinal Stritch) were playing their first exhibition games of the year last night. I neglected the Badgers last night and headed downtown to see the Panthers instead for a handful of reasons. First, I’m headed to next week’s Badger exhibition, so I thought I’d try to get an early look at the Panthers to cover all my bases. Second, I neglected UWM so badly last year that I’m not sure if I even made a trip down to the MECCA (or U.S. Cellular Arena, as the kids are calling it these days) last year, and needed to make up for that. Third, we’ve got a recession going on, and the half-price ticket deal that UWM had going on for the game, combined with the general unpopularity of a UWM exhibition game meant that I could attend this one for $5 and park on the street downtown for free. Now that’s a deal if I’ve ever seen one.
It turned out to be well worth my hard-earned $5 to see this one, which saw UWM escape with a 2-point victory when Cardinal Stritch’s Kody Haddix rimmed out a shot from just inside the top of the key as time ran out. If this is any indication of how the season is going to go, it’s going to be a fun year. As always, thoughts below. (Apologies for the lack of fanfare to start this year–I’m just jumping into things this time around, though I’ve already got some random pre-season thoughts and predictions prepared for tomorrow).
1) There’s a certain logic to putting an opposing team’s fans directly behind their team’s bench. However, it wasn’t necessarily a great idea to put the Cardinal Stritch students behind their team’s bench last night, given that sitting right next to them on the baseline was the UWM student section. Was there any question that such a seating arrangement would lead to lewd and insulting cheers being hurled between the student sections all night? Surprisingly, I don’t think that I heard the UWM students chant “Stritch is bitches” until after halftime. However there were plenty of off-color remarks made beforehand, many of which were noticeable only because the low attendance allowed for everyone to clearly hear individual students hurling insults. Of course, it was amusing to hear UWM students run down another school for having lower status than it, as Horizon League teams are usually on the other end of that situation.
2) As I shamefully alluded to earlier, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get to a UWM game last year. I’m not sure how that happened, and I’m just starting to realize how much I punted on basketball in general last year. So you’ll have to forgive me if the things that I talk about in this point are nothing new to this season, but I was very impressed with some of the improvements to the arena experience since the last time I’d been to the MECCA. Black and gold tarps covering the banks of seats behind the baskets (save for the UWM student section) are a brilliant idea, given that there are maybe two games per year when these sections of the arena have any potential of being used. It definitely makes the size of the arena feel more appropriate. And the fact that the players now run out of the locker room through a giant inflatable panther head–who couldn’t love that? The Panther Pit behind the basket on the end of the court opposite the student section looked sort of like a sad place to be last night, and the bartender at the back looked lonely all night, but it’s still a big improvement over the low-rent VIP tables that used to sit at that end of things. And I can’t complain about the UWM bookstore’s are manned by two people who looked like they were actually interested in being there, rather than the old booth that was usually staffed by someone who looked as if they would have rather been in jail. All in all, things continue to move forward at UWM.
3) In addition to UWM using its arena better, they’re also putting on a better show than they have the last few years. Rob Jeter is never going to be a guy that brings the minor league baseball-type promotion and feel that Bruce Pearl did to the MECCA, but the UWM athletic department has found a smart way to keep things fun–by stealing ideas from a place that puts on a good show. Tonight when I saw my first ever UWM halftime basketball musical chairs competition, I couldn’t help but think of all the fun that I’ve had over the years watching Marquette do the same thing at halftime. And trotting out some chosen “Season Ticket Holders of the Game” at the 16 minute timeout in the second half? That’s a Marquette staple, too. Some may find it tacky that UWM is taking these simple ideas from a school across town that they don’t exactly like, but I find it inspired. If you’re going to steal ideas, you might as well steal from the best, and Marquette consistently puts on a good show.
4) Jerard Ajami, who some may remember from his days at Madison Memorial a few years back, was among the most notable newcomers tonight for UWM, coming off his year of sitting out following his transfer from Northern Michigan. Ajami is looking to challenge for playing time this year. Based on last night’s performance, I can definitely say that he’s not a shy player, managing to get up six three pointers in his time on the floor last night. Tough to say what Ajami’s role will be, given the number of lingering questions about the Panthers’ backcourt (more on that later), but for now, he looks like a solid enough option.
5) Last night was the Cardinal Stritch coaching debut of former Fond du Lac star Drew Diener (yes, one of those Dieners). While you’d have to deem his first night a success, based on the fact that his NAIA team was one rimmed-out shot from taking a decent D-1 team to overtime, it was not a night without its challenges. Two technical fouls were assessed against the bench (seemingly both against Diener, but there was no ejection, so I can’t say for sure what went on there), and four of his players fouled out, forcing in a player outside of the rotation at the end of the game.
6) One of the first things that I noticed upon taking my seat in the arena (I arrived about a minute after tip due to some poor planning on my part) was the hair on UWM players. Several had mohawks, most notably Tony Meier and Jason Averkamp. The mohawk also seemed to be the choice of style for most of the players not in uniform last night. I get the goofy hair style if it’s a team unity thing, or a weak attempt to draw more attention to yourself individually. But if only five of the eighteen or so guys on the team do it, you just look kind of confused and dumb. As for Meier and Averkamp, the sides of Meier’s head looked so pale that I’m not sure they’ve ever seen the sun (and they never should again), and Averkamp’s failure to commit to shaving down the sides of his head made him look somewhat hobo-like (his excellent final five minutes of play notwithstanding).
7) Cardinal Stritch’s Kody Braddix was the game’s high scorer last night with 28 points, which was obviously impressive, as were the seven steals that he collected. Because of his great game, Braddix’s name came up on the post game show, when play-by-play man Bill Johnson noted to assistant coach Brian Bidlingmyer, who was handling interview duties for the night, that Braddix looked like a Horizon League caliber guard to him. That led to perhaps the most awkward moment of the night, as Bidlingmyer responded with comments that were entirely neutral with regard to Braddix’s ability. Bidlingmyer failed to even give a generic “He’s an excellent player, no doubt about that.” Instead, he talked about how Braddix definitely had the green light to shoot, and failed to ever assess his skill level. My question–why? Even if you don’t think Braddix is all that great a player, why not just lie in this instance? You’re never going to see him again, and saying that he’s a great player doesn’t hurt anyone. Instead, I’m left today thinking that the UWM coaching staff doesn’t think Kody Braddix is all that great. And even if that’s true, it doesn’t help me to know it.
8) Really, they thought it would be a good idea to break out the kiss cam at the first UWM exhibition game of the year? Predictably, finding couples to put the camera on in a minuscule crowd was not easy, and things wound down with shots of small children and pairs of people that clearly weren’t couples, none of whom were interested in kissing, or even paying attention, really. Maybe we could wait until a game that people actually attend to bust that feature out. It’s just a thought...
9) It was tough to get a read on UWM’s team last night. Sometimes when you watch an exhibition game, you get the feeling that even though the host team is struggling to gain the lead, they’ll ultimately destroy their competition in the end. I got the opposite feeling last night–that no matter how hard UWM tried, Cardinal Stritch was going to hang around until the end. Normally I’d be a bit upset to see UWM struggle so mightily to beat a team from a school that I sort of thought only existed as a place for local teachers to get their masters degrees, but this was not a typical game for UWM. The bench was used liberally and went 12 deep. Most of the players saw only 20 minutes of floor time, so Rob Jeter was definitely mixing things up. And most importantly, star guard Tone Boyle was out with and injury, as was the Panthers’ other likely starting guard, Ricky Franklin. There are some questions about whether Boyle or Franklin will play this year, as rumors surrounding Boyle’s injury make it sound fairly daunting, and I’ve yet to read a report that definitively notes that Franklin has regained the year of eligibility that he initially lost when coming in as a freshmen (though I may just be derelict in my research and such a report may be out there). With Boyle and Franklin (particularly Boyle, who can be a game-changer), this is a much different return, and all UWM fans should be hoping for the prompt return of each.
10) While the guards could clearly get better, James Eayrs was his usual magnificent self last night, putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds and generally physically over-matching Stritch’s smaller players. Fellow bulky forward Jason Averkamp did little of note until the last five minutes when he strangely took over the lane on offense and arguably became the key force in leading the Panthers to victory. There may be better frontcourts in college basketball, but I challenge you to find me a bulkier pair of forwards than this dynamic duo.
11) On an important note for the season, UWM seems to be in the process of re-branding their teams to be simply known as "Milwaukee." I kind of like that move, and hope that it catches some momentum. Nonetheless, as someone who lives in Milwaukee, everyone that I know refers to the school and its teams as UWM, and it just feels totally unnatural for me to start calling the Panthers "Milwaukee." So at least for now, I'm still going with "UWM." Anything else would feel forced right now. (And yes, I recognize that it's completely illogical that I support the re-branding, but refuse to go along with it in my blog. Sometimes I don't make sense, even to myself.)
With the game in the books, I made my drive home flipping between Wisconsin and UWM post-game interviews on the radio and made note of the construction roadblocks on the various routes back to my place from the MECCA this year. I’m going to be making the trip a few more times this year, so I might as well know the easiest way in and out of downtown.