Panthers' Focus Turns Toward NIT Preparations
March 11, 2011
MILWAUKEE - While the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee men's basketball team was hoping to be heading to the NCAA Tournament next week, don't think for a second the Panthers won't be ready and eager for their shot at postseason glory in the NIT.
UWM will find out its opponent and destination for its second-ever NIT berth and fifth-ever Division I postseason berth Sunday at 8 p.m. when the pairings are unveiled on ESPNU.
The Panthers (19-13) enter the postseason having won 10 of their last 12 games, recovering from a 4-5 Horizon League mark to win a share of the league crown and the top seed for the league tournament. That means an automatic berth into the NIT and a chance to play again after a disappointing 59-44 loss to Butler in the league tournament title game Tuesday night at the U.S. Cellular Arena.
"It's not going to be difficult (to get the team ready for the NIT)," UWM head coach Rob Jeter said. "We're excited to be at this point. We're very disappointed, but not discouraged. We fought hard, Butler played extremely well. We do know we earned the NIT bid because we put ourselves in position to be the number-one seed in this league. So we have basketball to be played."
"You want to make it to the NCAA Tournament. It's obviously what we dreamed of and what we worked for," Boyle said. "But last year we were sitting in a similar spot, losing to Butler and praying for a berth in the CIT. We have to keep to keep our heads up knowing we're going to the NIT and it's another great tournament. It's something where we can keep going and make some good memories from that."
The Panthers split their two NIT games in 2004, beating Rice 91-63 in Milwaukee before falling at Boise State, 73-70. UWM owns four overall Division I postseason wins, including three in the NCAA Tournament. But this season UWM seemed down and out, standing 9-11 overall after 17-point loss at Valparaiso Jan. 21. Milwaukee then beat Butler in overtime two days later and never really looked back.
"You take a look at this group and we've always been the underdog," Jeter said. "We've always been that team - oh, they can't win the next one, they can't win the next one. But yet we found a way to do it.
"We've had to prove that we're for real, and now we still have time to do that. We still have games to play and we still have more to prove."
It seems likely the Panthers, whose RPI sits in the 90's, will be sent on the road for the first round. Milwaukee has won eight true road games, including an impressive 6-3 mark in league road contests. UWM also may well get a shot at a BCS foe in the first round, an opportunity all "mid-majors" relish at any point in the season.
"We have a group of men that really want to represent themselves, each other and the University well," Jeter said. "That was the biggest hurdle for them to understand, that we want to represent each other well. Once they committed to that ... that's when we have fun and that's when we really appreciate the opportunities that we have and how special they are. They really started to appreciate it and people started to appreciate them, which was outstanding. Together we all had fun, and now there's still some fun out there."
Once the pairings are announced Sunday, the turnaround is short. Milwaukee could play as soon as Tuesday night and the first round will be wrapped up no later than Wednesday. That means spirited practices over this weekend, with an eye on still making some waves in the postseason.
"Just stay focused and stay ready for the next thing," Hill said of the Panthers' mindset now. "It's disappointing but we can't hold our head down. We just have to move on and stick together and keep trusting each other like we've been doing for the season."