The Panthers are not nationally dominant: There were 100 teams ranked higher in the RPI as of Tuesday morning, including three of their Horizon League brethren. There were 117 teams ranked higher in the Sagarin ratings, and 139 teams ranked higher on kenpom.com. Milwaukee is dangerous precisely because it doesn't have the résumé of an NCAA tournament at-large team -- and yet it, and not at-large hopefuls Butler and Cleveland State, has earned the right to host the final three rounds of the Horizon League tournament, which concludes on March 8. The Panthers are perfectly positioned to become the Horizon's automatic qualifier, potentially making it a two-bid league and stealing some bubble team's spot in the Field of 68.
How did this happen? Well, while the lone, late Horizon story most of us were following was the resuscitation of Butler's at-large hopes -- and the Bulldogs, winners of seven straight league games to close the regular season, may still need to make the league tourney final to earn an at-large -- the Panthers were creeping along stealthily. "Every time I'd read something about Butler being on a streak, I'd be like, 'Hey, we've won even more in a row,' " said Panthers coach Rob Jeter, whose team won its final nine Horizon games to enter a three-way tie for first place at 13-5. "But I understood [the lack of attention]. We weren't the ones who made it to the national championship game last year."
Milwaukee hasn't even been to the NCAA tournament since 2006, Jeter's first year as head coach after taking over from Bruce Pearl, who left for Tennessee. The Panthers were the Horizon's premiere program for a three-year stretch from '04 to '06. They won regular-season titles each of those years, making a Sweet 16 trip (as a No. 12 seed) under Pearl in '05, and reaching the second round (as a No. 11) under Jeter in '06. But the conference's power balance soon shifted, with Butler taking the next four league crowns, and Jeter's Milwaukee teams going 9-22, 14-16, 17-14 and 20-14.
Jeter was steadily rebuilding his roster, although perhaps at a slower pace than the school's fans had come to expect; a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story from July lamented that the program had "receded from the national spotlight," and he knew a lackluster sixth season might put his job at risk. The beginning of '10-11, for the Panthers, was not good: Through their first 20 games, they were just 9-11. Coming off a Jan. 21 loss at Valparaiso that sunk them to 4-5 in the Horizon, they held a team meeting in an Indianapolis hotel, in which Jeter told them, "We have to start caring about each other, and trusting in one another -- and if we don't, we're not going to have a chance to turn this around."
On the trust issue, Jeter was specifically referring to Milwaukee's new point guard, Kaylon Williams, a junior transfer from Evansville via Iowa's Kirkwood Community College. His teammates had yet to put their faith in him as an on-court leader, and he had yet to earn it. The following day, Williams proceeded to have a huge game in an overtime win at Butler, scoring 16 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing out six assists in what was the Bulldogs' first Horizon League loss at Hinkle Fieldhouse since February 2009, and the turning point of the Panthers' season.
With Williams feeding the veteran scoring trio of seniors Anthony Hill (15.3 points per game) and Tone Boyle (13.3 ppg) and junior Tony Meier (11.8 ppg), the Panthers haven't lost a league game since, going on a stunning run to 18-12. On Monday, Hill was named first-team All-Horizon and Jeter was named the league's Coach of the Year; and as the Horizon tourney begins Tuesday, they have a double bye and the luxury of avoiding Butler and Cleveland State (whom they also beat on the road, on Feb. 24) until the title game. Which, thanks to a tiebreaker in the conference standings, is at Milwaukee's U.S. Cellular Arena. At minimum, the Panthers are guaranteed a trip to the NIT, but the NCAAs are well within reach. And that's why the most tenuous at-large teams -- the Baylors, Gonzagas, Michigans and Colorados of the bubble -- are living in fear of Milwaukee.
Who else could steal NCAA tournament bids away from the bubble in the next two weeks? With the Panthers as No. 1, here's the rest of our top eight bid-thievery candidates:
2. Penn State (RPI: 49, 15-12, projected Big Ten No. 6/7 seed)
It must be noted that the Nittany Lions are still technically a bubble team, listed as one of the "first four out" in Andy Glockner's latest bracket on SI.com. But barring an upset of Ohio State on Tuesday, they won't have the at-large résumé needed to earn a bid. Penn State could, however, still conjure up enough Talor Battle Magic to make a run through a chaotic Big Ten tournament in which the league's big three, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin, have little left to prove. When the Nits' star guard is at his best, he's the league's most unstoppable scorer.
3. Duquesne (RPI: 87, 17-10, projected A-10 No. 4 seed)
It wasn't so long ago -- on Feb. 2, actually -- that the Dukes were the class of the A-10, sitting in a tie for first place with Xavier at 8-0. You could interpret their 1-5 stretch since as them falling apart ... or look closer and see that one of the losses is to the Musketeers, and three others were by two points or fewer. I'm not giving up on Duquesne yet, mainly because it still has the league's best per-possession defense.
4. New Mexico (RPI: 94, 18-11, projected Mountain West No. 6 seed)
The chances of someone other than BYU or San Diego State winning the MWC tourney are slim ... but the Lobos are the only conference team to have beaten BYU this season, they have a point guard, Dairese Gary, who led them to a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs last season, an NBA prospect in the post in UCLA transfer Drew Gordon, and they're the league's fourth-most efficient team. Don't write them off just because they're 6-8 in MWC standings.
5. USC (RPI: 81, 17-12, projected Pac-10 No. 4 seed)
No one would regard the Trojans winning the Pac-10 tourney as a shock, mainly because they've already beaten the league's Nos. 1 and 2 teams (Arizona and UCLA) in Los Angeles. They also may be the hottest team in the conference, having won four straight heading into the final regular-season weekend, led by junior forward Nikola Vucevic, who may be the Pac-10's best player not named Derrick Williams.
6. Hofstra (RPI: 83, 20-10, CAA No. 3 seed)
The CAA should be a two-bid league already, with George Mason and Old Dominion seeming to have airtight cases for at-large status in the Field of 68. Will they help out their league brethren by letting someone else win the conference tourney? The Pride will be playing with a great sense of urgency in Richmond: Their star, sleeper NBA prospect Charles Jenkins, has yet to make an NCAA tournament appearance in his decorated career ... and this is his final opportunity.
7. Boise State (RPI: 126, 17-11, projected WAC No. 2 seed)
Utah State, which dominated the WAC with a 13-1 record and is 28-3 overall, should get in the NCAA tournament as an at-large ... which means any upset of the Aggies in the league tourney will result in some bid thievery. The Broncos will be waiting on the other side of the WAC bracket as the likely No. 2 seed, and they're getting hot at the right time, having won five straight after a blowout loss in Logan on Feb. 5.
8. Virginia Commonwealth (RPI: 65, 21-10, CAA No. 4 seed)
Unlike Milwaukee, the Rams aren't hosting their league tourney in their home arena ... but they are hosting it a few minutes away, at the Richmond Coliseum, which lends them a sizable home-crowd advantage. They've tanked since a 12-2 start in CAA play, losing four straight conference games, but sandwiched in between those losses was an impressive BracketBusters upset of Wichita State on the road. VCU may be slumping, but it's still dangerous enough -- and playing close enough to campus -- to nab the CAA's automatic bid.