It was way back in November, two days before Thanksgiving and long before UW-Milwaukee knew just how good things would get. But everybody already knew things were a whole lot better than before.
Not that this was a particularly high bar for the Panthers. The previous season had seen them win all of eight games, a sorry slog that set the stage for coach Rob Jeter's massive offseason renovation project. When it was over, he'd have far more new players on his team than returning ones, which didn't keep preseason prognosticators from picking them last in the Horizon League.
Well, you may have heard by now that they didn't quite finish last. Not by a long shot. Because last night, the long shots won the Horizon League Tournament as a No. 5 seed, which means next week, they'll be in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.
And back in November, Jeter was already seeing the renovation bear fruit. His team had just won its sixth game of the new season, a 33-point drubbing of NAIA squad Judson, which is exactly what should happen when UWM plays an NAIA squad. But it was more than the score that told the tale. It was the way Matt Tiby was still exhorting his team and the crowd despite having a 30-point lead. It was the way Panthers were still diving to the floor late in the game when things had long since been decided.
It could’ve been a throwaway game for the Panthers, a cupcake Thanksgiving appetizer, but UWM’s players treated it like a main course. And that was what had Jeter in such a good mood afterward. It wasn’t just the result, it was how UWM got the result, which gave hints to the kinds of results Jeter could hope for in the future.
“This group is having fun,” Jeter told the rather sparse postgame media contingent. “The chemistry is there. We talked early about buying in, and I think they’re really buying in to how we want them to play. The next thing is learning how to play together, and they’re slowly getting better. And then the last part is leadership.”
And as far as Jeter’s list of intangibles went, that last part seemed the most inextricably linked to UWM’s early turnaround. “That was the biggest question mark for this group was leadership,” Jeter said, noting how hard it is to get “11 new faces” on the same page as the familiar ones. And now, the question was being answered.
“We have people that aren’t really scared to tell somebody when they’re wrong,” explained sophomore Austin Arians, “and tell somebody when they need to do something that they’re not doing. For example, Matt Tiby…”
Yes, Tiby, one of those 11 new faces, who immediately delivered an infectious combination of energy and drive that helped spur UWM’s revival. A congenial 6-foot-8 forward from Iowa who might’ve stayed close to home, if only somebody close to home had asked him too. Instead, “All the schools in Iowa didn’t really give me a chance,” Tiby said.
But UWM did, and immediately reaped the benefits of a newcomer who was unafraid to take on a leadership role. “That’s really what we needed this year, and it’s what we’re getting from Matt,” Austin said back in November. “Oh yes,” Tiby admitted, “I talk. I probably talk too much. But you know, somebody has to do it, and I’m stepping into that role, and I’ll gladly take it.”
Nobody knew back then where all of this would lead the Panthers, and there was certainly more to the turnaround story than intangibles. Yes, Tiby and Arians would average double-digit point totals, but so would Kyle Kelm and Jordan Aaron. And the Panthers had to overcome Aaron’s midseason four-game suspension for a violation of team rules, a stretch that saw UWM lose three of four games without its leading scorer.
But now, everybody knows where the path has led. It led to 20 wins. It led to three straight upset victories in the Horizon League tourney. And on Sunday, it will lead the Panthers to a TV screen, where they’ll see their name come up in the NCAA tourney.
And that name will probably be preceded by a seed of 15 or 16. And people will write them off as a one-and-done club, because that’s what people do with bad seeds from the Horizon League. And maybe the expectations of all those people will be right.
But sometimes, the unexpected really does happen.
Just ask the Panthers.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I tweet as howiemag. And listen to me talk sports with Mitch Teich once a month on WUWM's "Lake Effect."