UWM Panthers practice in Buffalo on eve of big NCAA game

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- The UW-Milwaukee Panthers were picked to finish last in the Horizon League this season -- but instead, they were Horizon League champions, and they launched themselves into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.

The #15 Panthers are in Buffalo, New York, where they'll face #2 Villanova on Thursday, March 20th.

#15 seeds aren't supposed to beat #2 seeds -- so on paper, it could appear UW-Milwaukee's dance may be a short one courtesy of Villanova, but we're not counting them out yet -- not with the way they're playing.

The Panthers have been out to prove the so-called "experts" wrong from day one of practice this season.

Head Coach Rob Jeter feels the adversity -- from the last season swoon that coincided with star guard Jordan Aaron's four-game suspension has helped a close-knit bunch of young men grow both on and off the court.

"When you're having fun, it's amazing how things fall into place. When you're confident in what you're doing, it's amazing how things can fall into place. Our key as coaches is to make sure these guys are confident in our game plan, and then let the players go out and have fun," Jeter said.

The UW-Milwaukee Panthers practiced at Medaille College in Buffalo from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Panthers players say the NCAA Tourney atmosphere is exciting -- and they say they're ready to face Villanova on the court.

"It's been great. I mean, we got a police escort here today, and that was pretty neat. Something I've never seen before," Panthers forward Austin Arians said.

"Crazy experience. I mean, you know, I didn't really expect all that to happen. It's just something that we're going to always remember for the rest of our lives," Panthers senior forward Kyle Kelm said.

"We just can't let it distract us, you know, we've gotta go out (Thursday) and we've gotta play another 40-minute game and try to come out with a win, you know. But I mean, it's been great, and I'm glad our guys got to experience that," Panthers guard Steve McWhorter said.

The Panthers face Villanova on Thursday at 8:25 p.m.