From the outside, Sunday’s 66-60 win against Cleveland State may have seemed meaningless for Milwaukee.
Although the Vikings are vying for a Horizon League title and conference tournament seeding, the Panthers are ineligible for the Horizon League and NCAA tournaments as the result of a ban due to a low Academic Performance rate. Additionally, they are already eliminated from the regular season conference title.
But there was meaning in that game for Milwaukee, just like there’s been meaning in the other 27 games the team has played this season.
If there wasn’t meaning, senior point guard Steve McWhorter would not still be playing there.
Everybody in the Milwaukee men’s basketball program was devastated upon finding out postseason basketball was not in the cards for the 2014-2015 season. But for McWhorter, the news was especially grim.
Here was the starting point guard for a team that just made a run to win the Horizon League Tournament and then gave No. 2 seed Villanova a good fight for 35 minutes in the NCAA Tournament.
And now, going into his senior season, the chance of repeating as conference champions and getting one final taste of every college basketball player’s dream, March Madness, was dead.
“That was one of the most devastating things I could receive before my senior year,” McWhorter says. “Every kid’s dream is to be playing on that big stage.”
Under APR bans, rules allow for seniors to transfer to a postseason-eligible school and play immediately instead of sitting out one season per NCAA regulations.
McWhorter had that opportunity. He could have left and likely would have received good offers. He wanted to taste the NCAA Tournament again.
But McWhorter, who had transferred from Indiana State to be closer to his home in Racine, Wisconsin, kept his basketball career in perspective and made a choice.
“Even though the ban really kind of put a damper on my mood and frustrated me, I knew that there was still an opportunity to do some things here [at Milwaukee],” McWhorter says.
Evan Richard, the team’s other senior and a reserve guard, chose to stay put as well.
“It wasn’t a tough choice for them. It was an easy choice,” coach Rob Jeter says. “It’s been a difficult season, but an easy choice for those two guys to come back and lead us through the APR year.”
McWhorter led this team the whole way, averaging team-bests of 14.3 points, 4.4 assists and 1.6 assists going into the final weekend of the season. The 6-foot-2 guard is also pulling in 4.9 rebounds per game.
On his senior day, McWhorter did more of the same. He tallied 13 points and 9 assists in the upset over Cleveland State.
After a pair of game-clinching free throws with 8 seconds left, Jeter subbed out his senior point guard to a huge ovation.
“It was kind of surreal,” McWhorter says.
Despite essentially having nothing to play for, McWhorter and the Panthers found ways to play with energy each game.
“It was my choice to stay here, and I knew what staying here meant,” McWhorter says. “I knew when my final game would be. I knew that I could play with that same energy and competitiveness because I’ve got too much pride to not do that.”
The pride extends to the entire team.
“We’re the defending Horizon League Tournament champs, and we played like that tonight,” Jeter says Sunday after beating Cleveland State. “We can’t play in the tournament, but we still can play like champions.”
After a Feb. 19 win at UIC, Flames coach Howard Moore commented that the Panthers had more energy than his team even though the Flames were fighting for conference tournament seeding.
“Just playing for each other,” McWhorter says on what drives the team in the absence of a postseason opportunity. “Last season, playing for each other was what got us as far as it did. … At the end of the day, we all love playing the game of basketball. Just because something like an obstacle is in your way, just because something doesn’t go your way, you shouldn’t stop playing and shouldn’t stop competing. That’s been our mentality all season, that we’re proving people wrong who think we’re gonna just throw in the towel.”
McWhorter’s teammates realize what their senior leader gave up. McWhorter could be starting at several other schools and prepping for a conference tournament run right now.
Instead, he is finishing his career as a Milwaukee Panther. The decision to not desert Milwaukee does not go over his teammates’ heads.
“He really taught me something about life and about something bigger than basketball,” junior forward J.J. Panoske says. “The type of player Steve is, he did the same thing in his life that he does on the court — he looks for guys. He’s not always trying to score. He’s trying to assist people. To do that in a bigger sense of the word ‘assisting,’ it’s something that will stick with me for a long time.”
From the outside, a player choosing to play for a postseason-ineligible may seem odd, or stupid even. Why pass up a chance to compete on college basketball’s biggest stage?
After all, McWhorter has been to the NCAA Tournament before. He understands how unbelievable it is.
“It’s a feeling like no other,” he says.
In the end, the lure of experiencing that feeling a final time did not compete with the desire to continue assisting the players he calls family.
“I stayed just for my teammates,” McWhorter says. “They would be losing their starting point guard and someone who could help the team and lead the younger guys. I just wanted to be there for my guys.”