- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

ROSEMONT, Ill. — The coach was vilified for exposing the recruiting violations of an opponent. The players are a hairless crew of castoffs. The team isn’t considered the best in its state and usually rates second to Marquette in its own town.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is best known — though not exactly well known — as the fictional school of “Happy Days” characters Richie Cunningham, Ralph Malph and Potsie Weber and as the real alma mater of former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

But the Panthers — not long ago a member of NAIA Division II — now are making a name for themselves on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Milwaukee stunned fifth-seeded Alabama and fourth-seeded Boston College last week to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, where the Panthers (26-5) will face No. 1 Illinois (34-1) tonight at Allstate Arena.

The Panthers were met at the airport by a crowd of 50 when they returned home after their upset victories. The dorm — yep, the dorm; the commuter campus has only one — was buzzing even though many students were away on spring break.

Thanks to the increased recognition, players no longer needed to show their student IDs to security guards to get into their own practice facility Monday.

The Panthers, the lowest seed (12th) remaining in the tournament, have captured the imagination of more than just their own Brew City following.

The Panthers are the latest incarnation of a mid-major program proving that March Madness isn’t meant only for blueblood basketball schools like Kentucky and North Carolina. Milwaukee has wrecked many an office pool, but it also epitomizes why the tournament is so compelling year in and year out.

“Everybody out there can identify with the UW of Milwaukees,” coach Bruce Pearl said. “The programs that have less and still are able to compete with those who have it all.”

Still, not everyone is enjoying the feel-good story of the tournament.

The Panthers clearly are unwelcome guests at the Chicago Regional. This round of the tournament was supposed to be just a warmup before a home crowd for top-ranked Illinois before the Illini move on to the Final Four.

Instead, today’s game has turned into Packers-Bears lite. One paper drew devil horns on Pearl’s head. Illini fans call him Satan — or, at least, that’s the printable version.

The Illinois faithful have waited 16 years for revenge on Pearl. As an assistant coach at Iowa, Pearl brought NCAA sanctions down on the Illini by secretly taping a conversation with a player who claimed Illinois offered him $80,000 and an SUV to play for the school.

The player, Deon Thomas, denied the accusations, and the school was cleared of them. However, the 16-month investigation prompted by Pearl found other infractions, and Illinois was barred from postseason play by the NCAA in 1991.

ESPN commentator Dick Vitale said Pearl committed “career suicide” with his behavior.

Pearl’s career is very much alive now, but he still is treated as an enemy of the state by Illinois fans.

“Regardless of who takes the floor against Illinois, do you think that team is going to be cheered when they come out of the tunnel?” Pearl said. “Will there be a little more noise because I’m coaching the opponent? Sure there will. I understand that.”

Illinois coach Bruce Weber — a Milwaukee-Wisconsin grad — knows he will be vilified by his own fans should the Fighting Illini lose to Pearl’s Panthers.

“People don’t realize how good they are,” Weber said. “I don’t think the fans realize it. They say we have it made. … [The Panthers have] already beaten two good teams. They can get us, too.”

The Panthers’ roster includes five transfers, four of whom have junior-college experience. They have grown so tight that four starters began shaving their heads before big games.

The blue-collar team pressures opponents the length of the court. That intense defense has led the Panthers to 11 consecutive victories and a 20-1 mark since they lost three straight in mid-December.

It’s a risky style to use against the Illini, however.

Panthers guards Ed McCants and Boo Davis perhaps can trade 3s with the Illini, but forwards Joah Tucker and Adrian Tigert can’t match Illinois forwards Roger Powell and James Augustine.

“If I took [the press off] too early, what would I be telling the kids?” Pearl said. “I don’t know if we can dictate the tempo with Illinois. I haven’t found a whole lot of strategy to beat them.”

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