By Ryan Boyd
March 23rd, 2012, 3:40 left on the game clock: Thousands at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis erupt as the 13th-seeded Ohio Bobcats build a four-point lead over top-seeded North Carolina. ‘Cats supporters across the nation hold their breath as if they were being swallowed by a violent ocean wave.
What was originally considered an unrealistic chance at an all-time upset, perhaps even a miracle, was within grasp. The Bobcats could see the path to the regional final.
Then, within moments, it was gone. Walter Offutt missed one of the more memorable free throws in Ohio history and the Tarheels silenced the entire Ohio nation.
In the words of Dick Vitale, it’s heartbreak city, baby.
231 days later, the college basketball season has returned. The sneakers are laced, the Convocation Center is prepped for action and the ‘Cats have everyone back on the court – well, at least those that matter.
Consider this: Ohio brings back all five starters and more than 97 percent of the scoring, rebounding and assisting from last year’s team. In fact, the three players that departed accounted for just 54 points in 37 games. I’m no math major, but I can tell you that those figures show their irrelevance.
D.J. Cooper leads the returners as one of the more dynamic point guards in the nation. Sure, I may be biased, but the numbers don’t lie. Cooper needs just 76 assists and 88 steals to become the all-time Mid-American Conference leader in each category. He will also (likely) finish in the MAC’s top 10 in career points scored. Simply put, he will end his career as arguably the greatest point guard in conference history – and almost certainly the best at Ohio University.
Behind Cooper is a wealth of depth and a number of returners who are built to succeed at different distinct parts of the game. Jon Smith is a lanky annoyance on the defensive end of the court. Nick Kellogg routinely arrives at the arena with a flamethrower strapped to his back as he ignites the three-point line. Stevie Taylor is a landmine waiting to explode with positive energy. And Offutt provides indispensable leadership on the court. The list goes on.
Now I realize the one missing part of the equation from a year ago is head coach John Groce. He took his talents to Illinois in what was a respectable move from the young, successful coach.
My thoughts? Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Groce.
Yep, I said it. I wasn’t sold on Groce. There’s no denying that he put Ohio basketball on the map, and I may be a bit bitter that I won’t be shaking his hand after every home game. But realistically, his coaching strategy wasn’t fool proof – especially when a contest was in the closing seconds. How many Bobcat fans have gone bald from pulling their own hair out as Cooper heaves a desperation shot from half court… following a timeout. It was laughable.
And replacing Groce is a proven coach in Jim Christian. Statistically, he is the most successful coach in MAC history and he has taken a group of players above and beyond the ‘Cats accomplishments of last season. Even at a dismal TCU program, Christian built a commendable offensive club that put together an above .500 season in 2011-12. The guy knows what he is doing.
Joining Christian is a couple of transfers that will complete the Bobcats roster. Leading the charge is 6-foot-8 forward Kadeem Green, who left Missouri – yes, the nationally ranked Missouri Tigers – last spring to come to Athens. He will miss the first few weeks due to NCAA transfer rules, but upon his return the ‘Cats will have an absolute steal. Green is an impressive physical specimen with terrific length and finishing ability on the fastbreak. In other words, he sounds like Cooper’s newest top weapon.
With the addition of Green, the Bobcats finally have all of the makings of a dominant mid-major basketball team. Ohio will have a four-man rotation at the power forward position, which gives Christian some much-needed flexibility when there is foul trouble. Also, the ‘Cats have a plethora of solid shooters. Any college basketball follower knows that the three-point shot is the great equalizer, and that is brought to the table with Travis Wilkens, Kellogg, Offutt and Taylor. Most importantly, the Bobcats will be electric on defense. The ball pressure will be fierce and teams will be forced into poor decisions repeatedly. Don’t believe me? Ask Mercyhurst. They committed 32 turnovers in the exhibition game last weekend.
Admittedly, no season is completed on paper. Ohio should be favored in the majority of their contests and they have a wonderful opportunity to break the rankings in the early part of the season, but this will require strides as a team. The ‘Cats must improve their shooting percentage and rebounding if they hope to compete at a national level. In the matchup with North Carolina, the Tarheels won the rebounding battle, 55-27. It was ugly.
Furthermore, the struggles of being a mid-major team always include the fear that one bad loss could end a season. I mean, in the MAC, winning the conference is paramount to solidifying a spot in the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t matter how talented this bunch is, they will have immense difficulties securing an at-large bid unless they beat both Memphis and Oklahoma, while losing to almost no one. It’s frustrating, but that’s the nature of the sport.
However, the potential for a letdown shouldn’t shield your excitement. Unlike college football, Ohio men’s basketball team is in contention for a National Championship. Every team in the nation is. That’s what makes basketball season so enjoyable.
The difference between the ‘Cats and most others in the NCAA, is that they have a very real shot to make a run. Ohio will have its chance at redemption. Mark it down.