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Team Profile: 2006 BracketBuster Preview: Missouri State at UW-Milwaukee

by David Mihm | February 11th, 2006

Ten days ago, this game looked like it wasn’t going to matter. The Missouri State Bears were sitting in a distant fifth position in the Missouri Valley Conference at 8-6, having just blown a very winnable game at SIU Arena against the Salukis. Wisconsin-Milwaukee had lost two straight games to Horizon League competition, and although one of those losses came at Butler, any glimmer of hope the Panthers had for an at-large bid was extinguished.

Today, any glimmer of hope for UW-M’s at-large chances is still extinguished, but the game means a lot to Missouri State. Because immediately following that close loss in Carbondale, the Bears went in to Cedar Falls and knocked off MVC heavyweight Northern Iowa, giving MoState its second top 25 RPI win and pushing the Bears to within a game of second place in the conference. Consequently, the Bears’ own RPI rocketed into the sub-30 “lock zone.”

While it remains to be seen whether the traditional cut-off for “automatic” at-large bids holds at 30, the Bears are certainly back in the NCAA discussion. A season-closing win over Creighton in Springfield, Mo. would go a long way towards getting the former SMS back to the Big Dance for the first time since Steve Alford led ‘em there in 1999.

But it would also be a mistake not to consider the Bracketbuster an important game for MoState. Wisconsin-Milwaukee has been ranked in the RPI’s top 50 all year, and while the Panthers are currently hovering at #49, a road win over the regular-season leader of another mid-major conference would look pretty good on the Bears’ resume.

If Missouri State is going to win, all-everything guard Blake Ahearn will once again need to put the team on his back. Ahearn averages nearly 18 ppg in only 32 minutes of action, shoots at 95% from the free-throw line (no, that’s not a misprint), and has led the Bears in scoring in all but one non-conference game.

Tyler Chaney and Nathan Bilyeu anchor the inside for MoState, combining for 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Senior swingman Kellen Easley, a high school teammate of Illinois’ Roger Powell, will be a tough matchup for UW-M, as he stands an athletic 6’7″, 190 lbs.

Missouri State is near the top of the Missouri Valley Conference in a ton of statistical categories–now all the Bears need to do is translate their statistical prowess into wins.

There has been little dropoff in 2005-2006 for Rob Jeter’s Wisconsin-Milwaukee team. One year removed from their Cinderella performance under Bruce Pearl, the Panthers got off to a hot start, compiling an 8-3 nonconference record that included losses at Memphis and Wisconsin, and wins over Hawaii and St. Louis, at Wyoming, and at Montana in what has been called the biggest game ever played in Bozeman. No true marquee wins, but a resume that was good enough to propel UW-M into the top 20 of the RPI rankings just after New Year’s.

The Panthers’ at large hopes began to diminish after a defeat to lowly Wisconsin-Green Bay on January 14. After a win at Horizon darkhorse Loyola (Chi.) on January 30, the Panthers’ fourth in a row, things were once again looking good. But a loss at Wright State, and the aforementioned loss at Butler, combined with an overtime loss to rival Illinois-Chicago have knocked UW-M out of at-large consideration.

So what does this game mean for the Panthers? In a word: seeding.

If the Panthers are fortunate enough to win the Horizon league’s automatic bid, this game could be the difference between a 14 and a 12 seed. No one knows better than Panther fans just what a difference that #12 in front of your name can make when the NCAA Tournament rolls around.

Wizened veterans Adrian Tigert and Joah Tucker provide great leadership and experience coming off of last year’s Sweet 16 appearance, and will make sure their team is ready for this big game.

U.S. Cellular Arena will be rocking for this nationally-televised affair, and the Panthers’ frantic up-and-down style and Blake Ahearn’s flair for dramatic shots will make this game a feast for the eyes. If the Panthers’ score gets into the 80′s, we’ll know that Rob Jeter’s team has controlled the tempo; they’ve lost only one game all year when they’ve broken the 80-point barrier. But in the end, the game does mean that much more to Missouri State, who would like to avoid any pressure in Arch Madness. Look for four Blake Ahearn free throws to seal the game with under a minute remaining.

Prediction: Missouri State 83, Wisconsin-Milwaukee 79

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