There were days Malcolm Moore wondered if he'd ever play basketball again. There were months he was dependent, 24/7, on others to get through a day.

Now, here he is, the X-factor in the NCAA Tournament for UW-Milwaukee.

"It's been up to the top of the mountain and back to the bottom for me," said Moore, dripping sweat after practice Tuesday. "This made everything better. I've been dreaming about this moment."

His isn't the name typically attached to the rise of the Panthers this season.

But if UWM (21-13) is going to be the seventh 15th seed to upset a No. 2, it'll need to do it the Malcolm Moore way. With heart, with hustle, with a sharpened elbow. The 6-foot-7, 230-pounder is a presence off the bench. The Panthers cannot accept Villanova's invitation to a track meet. One team has thoroughbreds that'll score 90 points. One, UWM, has brute force in the paint.

That's where Moore comes in. He brings the toughness the Panthers need Thursday night at the First Niagara Center in downtown Buffalo.

"They're just like anybody else," Moore said of the Wildcats (28-4). "We can play with anybody. We have a lot of options. We have a lot of strengths. It all comes down to defensively, we have to play hard like we have been."

The frustration began at the University of Texas at El Paso with a move he's done "a million times." After a stint in junior college, Moore was starting to get minutes at UTEP. Then came this practice right before Christmas break in 2011. Moore drove baseline and jumped to fire the ball out to a teammate at the top of the key.

When he landed — on "this leg," he says, tapping his right knee — "everything just shattered."

"I tore every ligament in my knee," he said. "Total reconstruction."

The ACL, the MCL, the PCL. Anything with a "CL," he tore it.

For the ensuing six or seven months, Moore said, he had to learn how to use his leg again. He couldn't even shower by himself. Worst of all, for the first time of his life, Moore couldn't play basketball.

"It hurts everywhere," Moore said. "It's hard to sleep. Your leg is always in pain. It was a hard time for me."

One of the UTEP managers took up residence underneath Moore's lofted bed and helped with everything.

Moore played 14 uneventful games during the 2012-'13 season. He eventually headed north to UWM as a fifth-year transfer for a chance to salvage this once-promising basketball career.

But not before tearing the MCL in his right knee while working out with his brother.

More disappointment, more pain.

It has taken a while, but Moore gradually has become the player he always envisioned. In the Panthers' Horizon League championship win over Wright State, the tenacious forward had seven points and eight boards. He's averaging 18.2 minutes in UWM's last 10 games.

"I've felt good the past couple months," Moore said, "since the conference came around I've been feeling a lot better. But I feel like I have a long way to go. I'm not done yet."

UWM coach Rob Jeter calls Moore the most underrated player on the team.

He knows the Panthers need his grit against the running, gunning Wildcats. To win, UWM needs punch first.

"You have to block a few, deflect a few and then you have to throw one of your own," Jeter said. "They're going to come out swinging, too. You can't get staggered early."