Monday, November 22, 2010

UWM vs. Northern Iowa: Mid-Major Utopia

It was a rough hoops weekend for the big boys in Wisconsin college hoops. I haven’t yet watched the Wisconsin-UNLV game, but have read that there were many missed opportunities leading to Wisconsin’s 3-point loss to the Runnin’ Rebels. And friends that attended the Marquette-South Dakota game related that although a fan won a car on a half-court shot during a break in the action, the Golden Eagles looked fairly lifeless in their win over the Coyotes. So it is with great relief that I’m able to tell you that I picked the right game to watch this weekend, as I met up with a couple of friends to check out the UWM-Northern Iowa game downtown on Saturday night. It was my first look UWM this year, and it was a good one, as the Panthers (UWM Panthers, that is–it’s sort of tough to use that moniker in today’s entry, since Northern Iowa shares the same mascot) won a thriller. Thoughts on my first trip to the MECCA this year:

1) In addition to the UWM game on Saturday night, the Milwaukee Bucks were playing right across the street at the Bradley Center. It’s always sort of a bummer when the Bucks are downtown on the same night as the Panthers. The traffic is heavier, the parking ends up being more expensive, and you feel a little weird walking around with a UWM shirt when everyone else is wearing green and red. Yes, it may be one of the saddest franchises in the NBA, but any NBA fan base still dwarfs the fan base of a mid-major college team.

2) So much for buying a UWM media guide (which it’s entirely possible that they no longer make) at the stand that used to sell them on the way in. That stand now sells gourmet popcorn. While there are probably more people that want popcorn than media guides, this still begs the question of who would head to a UWM game and have a craving for cheddar popcorn.

3) I’m not going to lie–my interest in going to see Saturday night’s game was less about UWM and more about getting to see last year’s Missouri Valley champions in person. However, I will say that I was excited when the game started and UWM not only hung with Northern Iowa, they kept a slight lead for most of the game. To be fair, Northern Iowa lost three key players from last year’s squad (including Missouri Valley Player of the Year and former Ashwaubenon star Adam Koch) and they’re not exactly as powerful as last year, but the Panthers should still be a solid Missouri Valley team.

4) Northern Iowa’s Lucas O’Rear isn’t exactly an unknown entity, but you can’t help but be impressed by him. He doesn’t look like a guy that should be an excellent basketball player, but there he is in the starting lineup, grabbing rebounds and generally holding things together. He’s one of those guys that stands out for not standing out, and it’s always nice to have one of those helping to prop up your team.

5) While it was an interesting idea by UWM last year (or perhaps a couple years back–I really can’t remember) to eliminate the bank of seats behind one of the baskets, put in a bar and a bunch of tables to stand at and name that area the “Panther Pit,” I was reminded again on Saturday night that the Panther Pit is one of the saddest places on earth. There was some brief activity there during halftime, but otherwise it was generally a huge empty area with a lonely bartender on duty. Given that Northern Iowa is one of the three most intriguing games on the UWM schedule, I’m thinking that the only chance of excitement in the Panther Pit this year is if Marquette fans try to stage a hostile takeover when the Golden Eagles’ visit UWM next Saturday.

6) One of the intriguing things about seeing Northern Iowa was that the Panthers have two Wisconsin products on their roster in Jake Koch (brother of the aforementioned Adam) and Chip Rank, a freshman standout from Cedearburg. Koch played his high school to far away from me for me to ever see him play, but I had the chance to see Rank last year and was very impressed. I was pleased to see him have a nice game off the bench. His activeness on defense and surprising shooting range confirmed for me what I’d suspected before Rank got to Northern Iowa–he’s going to be a very good player for the Panthers for the next four years.

7) Excited as I was about seeing Chip Rank, I was less excited than the group of young men in the row ahead of me, who I can only assume were hopeful young Cedarburg hoopsters who had watched Rank play for the last few years as they dreamed of playing ball for the Bulldogs. I’m glad that those guys got to enjoy the game, even if their speculation about Rank tossing down a game-winning dunk in overtime did not materialize.

8) I’d read the pre-season hype about Anthony Hill and I’d tempered my expectations a bit, because I’ve actually seen Hill play. But it looks to me like Hill’s late-season surge last year may have been for real, and that he may have finally turned a corner and become the solid player that everyone has been waiting for. I’m not sure if something went off in Hill’s head, or if his teammates are simply looking for him more, but I don’t think that his 17-point effort is going to be uncommon this year. With his muscular frame, Hill has always looked the part. Now he’s playing the part, too.

9) I didn’t get to a lot of UWM games last year, though I know that I saw the thing that I’m about to mention during the times when I did make it to the MECCA. So I need to apologize for being late to the game with my praise for the giant inflatable panther head that the players run in and out of to get to the locker room. It is thoroughly awesome.

10) It was nice to see Tone Boyle healthy and sinking a game-winning shot with 2-seconds left. The play was a classic example of just letting the team’s best scorer get the ball and make something happen. There were a few screens that Boyle curled around, but he ultimately ended up creating his own shot with a defender in his face. The shot was clutch, and the fact that he was even able to get such a nice shot off shows exactly why Boyle is a fun guy to watch.

And with the UWM victory in the books, my friends and I headed off to catch the end of the college football Saturday with a couple of other pals. We’ll be reconvening tonight to catch the Marquette-Duke matchup in the CBE Classic. To be completely honest, I don’t have a great feeling about this one. While Marquette’s athleticism and ability to play hard at all times is inspiring, Duke’s experience is tough to overlook. I’m seeing a big double-digit loss tonight for the Golden Eagles. But if we replay this one in March, I suspect it’s a much different ballgame. In any event, I’ll be back tomorrow with thoughts on the game.


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