NEW ORLEANS -- Southeast Missouri State University coach Gary Garner believes the Indians can compete with most of the teams in the University Hoops Classic -- but he knows they'll really have their hands full today.
The Indians open the six-team tournament hosted by Tulane University with a 5 p.m. game at Fogelman Arena against highly-regarded Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Both squads are 1-1.
"They are a very good team and we've got a big challenge ahead of us," Garner said. "We're going to really have to play well to stay with them and hopefully have a chance to win, but they are really good."
Wisconsin-Milwaukee made major strides in its first season under Bruce Pearl last year, going 16-13 overall and 11-5 in the Horizon League as Pearl was named the conference's coach of the year in his first season as a Division I head coach.
With every starter returning, the Panthers are expected to be even better this year and they have been picked to win the Horizon League championship.
Leading the Panthers is Clay Tucker, a 6-foot-3 do-it-all swingman who averaged 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year to rank second and fifth in the Horizon League. Tucker was not only all-conference but he also made the league's all-defensive team.
Tucker got off to a strong start, scoring 18 points during the Panthers' 83-72 season-opening loss at Wisconsin, but he was held to nine points during Tuesday's 77-75 win over Mississippi Valley State.
"They're picked to win their league and they've got probably the best player in their league," Garner said. "Tucker is very good. He can beat you in any way imaginable."
And Tucker isn't the Panthers' only talented player. Ronnie Jones, a 5-9 senior guard who comes off the bench, averaged 13.3 points last year to make second-team all-conference. He hit 43.3 percent from 3-point range to lead the team. Jones scored 23 points in the Panthers' first two games.
Jason Frederick, a 6-4 senior guard, averaged 10.7 points last year and hit 38.4 percent of his 3-point attempts. He has scored 22 points in two games so far.
The Panthers also feature 6-11 junior center Nate Mielke, who has scored 28 points so far this year, and 6-8 junior forward Dylan Paige, who is the Panthers' leading scorer through two games with 29 points.
"They'll be more talented than Arkansas State, but they're a lot like Arkansas State in that they play two big guys and three smaller guys," Garner said. "They've got good players at every spot on the floor, and they've got some size and some quickness."
According to Garner, the Indians will have to be particularly wary of the Panthers' press, which he considers one of the best Southeast has seen over the last several years.
"They press at least half the game and it's a hard press, and a really good press. They're probably the best pressing team we've seen since I've been here," Garner said.
After dropping their season opener at Arkansas State last Friday, the Indians rebounded Monday to roll past NAIA Central Methodist 82-63 in their first home game.
The Indians know they'll need to elevate their game several notches in order to have a successful tournament, but they appear to welcome the challenge.
"We're looking forward to the tournament and seeing some real good teams," sophomore guard Derek Winans said. "I think we can do well."
Added junior center Brandon Griffin, "We're going to be playing a lot bigger teams in this tournament. I know we'll have to play good against these kind of teams, but we're looking forward to it."