As the later rounds of the Horizon League Tournament are upon us, the games mean more and the memories last that much longer. There have been plenty of memories, good and bad, for the Panthers over the years in the league tournament. Many of those games helped frame rivalries.
It is in that context that I thought I would talk rivalries today in the latest entry looking back the decade of the 2000’s in UWM men’s basketball. I’ll cut to the chase, because there are really only three options in picking Milwaukee’s biggest rival over the last 10 years.
I am not here to make a final declaration on the biggest rival, as I really do think that comes down to the fans. Their interest or lack there of will accelerate or kill a rivalry quickly. Instead, let me present the three options, with a few thoughts or reminders on why that school might have been the biggest rival of the last decade.
Let’s start first with the school just 90 miles or so up I-43 in Green Bay. It is definitely a “built-in” rivalry, because two schools from the same state in the same league are bound to become adversaries.
But, let’s face it, the two schools never really met in an important game in 10 years. In fact, Green Bay beat UWM in each of three seasons the Panthers went to the NCAA Tournament, but obviously none of those losses kept Milwaukee from going to the Big Dance. The two schools also met just once in the league tournament in 10 years, and that was in the quarterfinals in 2000.
Still, even beyond the in-state part, the Phoenix is clearly on the rivalry chart. There was the infamous dust-up between Green Bay head coach Tod Kowalczyk and UWM associate head coach Tony Jones during the 2003-04 season. Even before that, there was no love lost between the two coaching staffs.
There were also battles on the recruiting trail, with plenty of headlines made in the recruiting of Ryan Tillema and Mike Schachtner to GB. Ironically, after Bruce Pearl battled to get both of them, he never wound up coaching against either one of them when they went to Green Bay. Beyond Loyola and occasionally Valpo, Green Bay is really the only other league school UWM truly finds itself recruiting against directly.
Finally, the competition has been fierce through all 10 years of the decade. In UWM’s best years, GB would pull off an upset. In Milwaukee’s 9-22 season, that ninth win came at Green Bay on the final day of the regular season.
Next, we talk UIC. There is a definite geographic element here that helps, with the two campuses also separated by about 90 miles. And, you can never go wrong with a Wisconsin/Illinois or Milwaukee/Chicago battle, and somehow that was always more apparent with the UWM/UIC contests instead of the UWM/Loyola contests.
But the UWM/UIC rivalry is defined by one thing, and that is the very personal rivalry between Bruce Pearl and Jimmy Collins. I don’t imagine I need to rehash all of the details there, but suffice it to say the Horizon League has never experienced the level of animosity between two coaches like Bruce and Jimmy. Both coaches were even ejected once against the other, while there were battles over handshakes, signs in the stands, gestures to the crowd and treatment in the media.
Still, if both teams were .500 when those coaches were in charge, the juice in the rivalry would fade quickly. Instead, there were battles in the 2003 league tournament semifinals and the 2004 league tournament finals. There were also regular season contests with a ton on the line, like Senior Night 2003 for the Panthers. Even in 2002, UIC won at the buzzer at home and then beat Milwaukee in the league tournament en route to an upset berth in the NCAA Tournament.
So, for whatever the rivalry loses for the years outside of the Bruce/Jimmy days, it clearly had enough juice in those seasons to carry it for a decade. And, truth be told, there is still always a certain buzz in the crowd at The Cell about beating UIC, as many Panther fans will probably always hold a grudge over some of the events of those earlier days. I am sure the same thing can be said about many UIC fans, too.
Finally, there’s Butler. In some ways, everyone in the league wants to consider Butler to be their biggest rival, simply because the Bulldogs were on the top of the league more than anyone in the last decade. But, the game note I use every time we play Butler tells the story of this rivalry in capsule form …
Recent seasons have seen a number of memorable contests between Butler and UWM, including a pair of meetings in league title games. Dating back to the 2000-2001 season, four meetings between the two teams have gone into overtime while four others have been decided by three points or less. Each team has also claimed a win at the buzzer. In Indianapolis in 2002, Clay Tucker hit a three-pointer from the top of the key to give UWM a win. Then, in the final game of the 2003 regular season in Indy, Avery Sheets hit a three at the horn to give the Bulldogs a 76-74 win. In 2005-06 at Hinkle Fieldhouse, A.J. Graves hit a three at the end of regulation to force overtime before Butler pulled out a three-point win. In 2007-08, Ricky Franklin hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime at the U.S. Cellular Arena, though the Bulldogs pulled things out in the extra session. Last season, UWM's win in Milwaukee came as the Panthers hung on for a three-point victory after leading by as many as 13 points in the second half.
Of course, you can add this year’s thriller at The Cell to this list, too. This rivalry goes to the top in many people’s minds because these were the league’s two best teams of the decade. Perhaps the only thing that diminishes it is that there were some years of dominance by each when the other team wasn’t as good. But, when you combine the memorable regular season games – many of which REALLY mattered – combined with a pair of league tournament title meetings, certainly UWM didn’t play more important games against any other opponent.