The Milwaukee Panthers, who will begin the 2008 season with nine new players, are projected to finish sixth in the Horizon League, according to a poll of Horizon League voters.
Cleveland State, who finished second in the league last season and return four of five starters, is the pick to win the conference, while last year's third place finisher, Wright State, is picked to finish second in the conference. UIC, Green Bay and Butler round out the top five.
The Panthers will be a guard dominated team, as sophomore Deonte Roberts, senior Ricky Franklin, junior Kaylan Anderson, senior Deion James, and junior Charlie Swiggett all saw significant playing time last season and figure to have impacts this season.
Preseason All-Conference pick Avery Smith in 2007 will join them. Smith was dismissed from the team before the start of the year, but has worked his way back onto the team for the coming season. Additionally, the team hopes sharp shooting junior college transfer Tone Boyle will be able to spread out opposing defenses.
Milwaukee's success this season will depend heavily on how quickly the new forwards adjust to Division I. UWM's only returning forwards are sophomore Anthony Hill and junior Jason Averkamp since 2007 starters Paige Paulsen and Marcus Skinner graduated and freshmen Tim Flowers and Kevin Johnson were kicked off of the team.
Junior college transfers James Eayrs, a deceptively quick 6'7" 340 pound forward with range out to the three point line, and athletic, defensive minded forward Burleigh Porte, are likely to be the two players who will provide them with the most help. Freshmen Ryan Haggerty, Tony Meier, and Riley Walker will provide additional depth.
Despite what the preseason pollsters have to say, many close to the program are much more optimistic about the season, and for good reason.
In 2007, the preseason polls projected the Panthers to finish in fourth. However, that was before Smith, Flowers, Johnson, and leading scorer and rebounder Torre Johnson were kicked off of the team, and guard Roman Gentry opted to transfer to South Dakota for personal reasons.
At that point, finishing the season looked like it was going to be difficult enough for UWM, but the remaining players battled, and managed to meet expectations, finishing the season in a tie for fourth place. It was a conference season that gave most Panther fans a great deal of confidence in their coaching staff.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the front court, the questions about how Smith will play after a year away from D-I competition, plus the fact that the chemistry that the team finished out the year with last season will have to be rebuilt with ten players who were not on last year's roster, sixth seems about right.
The potential is there to finish higher if the team can recapture last season's chemistry.