The Horizon League final tips off on Tuesday night between two extremely talented teams who shared the conference regular season championship. Milwaukee and Butler tied in the regular season, but thanks to a tiebreaker, the game will be held on Milwaukee’s home court, providing a tremendous advantage for the Panthers. After defeating the Bulldogs twice already this season, Milwaukee seeks the season sweep and a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five seasons.
Milwaukee (19-12, 13-5) comes into the game as the host and the winner of both regular season battles. Still yet, they are also seen as the underdog in most people’s minds. The Panthers finished the season strong, winners of 9 of their final 10 games and finishing with a flourish that took the team from an overall losing record into a tie for the conference championship. The Panthers are led by Anthony Hill, a senior forward who took advantage of increased playing time in his final season to lead the team to its strong finish. Hill is averaging 15.6 points and 7 rebounds a game and has found particular success against Butler. In both games versus the Bulldogs this season, Hill has dominated the interior, averaging 20 points and propelling his team to victory. However because of Butler's recent NCAA tournament success and Milwaukee's struggles early in the season, most consider the Bulldogs to be the favorite, even on the Panthers' home court.
Butler came into the season with the highest of expectations. After its Cinderella run to the national championship game last season, the Bulldogs were expected by many to be one of the dominant powers in the country and stay in the Top 25 all season. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Butler was never able to take advantage of its difficult early non-conference schedule and at no point has looked like the team that dazzled the nation last season. However the Bulldogs are playing their best basketball of the season when it matters most. They have won 8 straight and are getting consistent performances from their two stars, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack. Now it comes time to get over the hump and beat a Milwaukee team that exploited Butler's defensive woes in their two earlier meetings. The loss at home in Hinkle Fieldhouse to the Panthers means that this game will be played in Milwaukee. Even if Butler loses, it could potentially sneak into the NCAA field, probably as one of the last four in the play-in games in Dayton. But a victory makes the NCAA berth automatic and gives the Bulldogs a chance to get a seed that can create some more March magic.
There will probably be no more competitive game in Championship Week between two talented teams with more at stake than Butler and Milwaukee. Both are capable of beating any team in America on a given night, but neither is certain to make the NCAA Tournament with a loss. Butler will have to do something it has rarely had to attempt in the past few years, win a conference tournament championship away from home. Milwaukee will seek to make history with a team that looked unsalvageable just a little more than a month ago. It should be quite a memorable battle.
Posted by MATT JONES