Danny Spewak, Rush The Court
They hail from a league nestled in America’s heartland, playing in relative anonymity in the Mid-American Conference. Each winter, they travel through Ypsilanti, Mount Pleasant, Kalamazoo and a host of other industrialized college towns with funky names, occasionally appearing on ESPNU or regional television. They toil in obscurity behind one of the largest and most powerful state universities in the United States, keeping to themselves in a town called Athens situated about 157 miles away from Cincinnati and 217 miles from Cleveland.
The point guard grew up in Chicago but had no offers from the Big Ten out of high school. The team’s vocal leader and second-leading scorer used to average five minutes a game at Ohio State. The two leading rebounders stand tall at an undersized 6’8”, each averaging just 5.0 boards per game. The head coach is a young, refreshing sparkplug with a load of energy, but his shaved head and small stature seem to fit the mold of an athletic trainer– not the leader of a team in the Sweet Sixteen.
At first glance, nothing about the Ohio Bobcats suggests they should have any shot against top-seeded North Carolina Friday evening, even if standout point guard Kendall Marshall’s wrist injury leaves him unavailable to play. UNC center Tyler Zeller, a former McDonald’s All-American from a well-known basketball family in Indiana, paid polite compliments to the 13th-seeded Bobcats on Thursday afternoon. But even he admitted they are vulnerable in the frontcourt, claiming his team “can attack them a little bit down low and try to play to our strengths.” So it’s settled: as long as the bigger, badder Tar Heels show up to play, they’ll have no trouble dispatching a little Cinderella that finished third in the MAC East Division.
But how much do the Tar Heels really know about the Ohio Bobcats from Athens?
They may not know Ohio’s four leading scorers have already played in the NCAA Tournament before this season, three of whom played on the team that stunned Georgetown in the first round in 2010. Or that Walter Offutt is no stranger to the Sweet Sixteen, having reached one with Evan Turner, David Lighty and a cast of other Buckeyes stars before transferring. And as for D.J. Cooper, that point guard nobody from the Big Ten wanted after high school? He’s a Cousy Award finalist who averages nearly six assists a game and just might be the most complete guard in this regional.
Forgive these guys if they’re not scared of North Carolina. “I’m not really scared of anybody,” Offutt said. “We think we’re a good team. And we know we’re a good team.”
As Zeller alluded to, the Tar Heels certainly have an advantage in terms of size. Zeller and shot-blocking phenom John Henson are elite, NBA-ready rebounders with long wingspans and off-the-charts athleticism. Offutt will draw the assignment of leading scorer Harrison Barnes on most possessions, but even he gives up five inches to the UNC star. From a purely physical standpoint, Ohio probably does not have an answer for any of those players, but they still have their own hidden strengths in this matchup. For starters, the Bobcats’ guards have no problem playing at the frenetic pace Roy Williams wants to dictate. In fact, they prefer it: This is a group of guards that prides itself on forcing turnovers and pressuring the ball. Cooper ranks second all-time in program history with 257 steals, and his team ranks in the top five nationally in turnovers forced. They don’t rely on the three-point shot, but just as VCU did a year ago, they’ve heated up from beyond the arc lately. In the third-round win against South Florida, Offutt made four threes and finished with a team-high 21 points.
“We are the 13 seed,” Cooper said. “But nobody in our locker room feels like we’re a Cinderella team. We feel like we can compete with anybody on a national stage.”
That may sound like a generic quote from Cooper, but it also may be a mistake to dismiss Ohio on account of a rather soft schedule and a lack of quality wins before the NCAA Tournament. The Bobcats still won at Marshall in December in the midst of a 12-1 stretch to open the season, and they blasted NCAA tourney participant UNC Asheville in a BracketBusters matchup. This is team that beat East champion Akron twice, including a 24-point victory in Athens. If Marshall cannot play– and Williams says he has a “strong, strong inclination” that he will not — Cooper will easily be the best point guard on the floor Friday night.
Now appearing in his fifth career NCAA Tournament game, the bright lights in St. Louis won’t bother Cooper. It won’t bother Offutt, either, and it won’t bother coach John Groce, who said he has learned how to better handle the national attention this season as opposed to 2010. That year, the Bobcats fell flat in a second-round game against Tennessee on the heels of an upset of the Hoyas. This season, Groce said he took away his team’s cell phones after it upset Michigan to avoid a distraction.
Still, making its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1964, Ohio naturally has a different, more happy-go-lucky attitude in St. Louis this weekend– an attitude Henson called “dangerous.” “They’re shooting better than they shot all year three-point wise, they’re playing more confident,” Henson said. “It’s gonna be a challenge.”
Cinderella storyline aside, most of the attention in this Sweet Sixteen matchup has focused on Marshall’s status. The dynamic point guard changes the game with his ability to see the floor and create for his teammates, but he told Williams he cannot even brush his teeth right now (true to form, Williams asked the media out loud, “How the dickens can he play a basketball game if he can’t brush his teeth?”) Marshall removed his cast earlier this week, but Williams said backups Stilman White and Justin Watts will indeed step in for Marshall if he cannot play with the pain. White, a wide-eyed freshman who Williams said needs to carry his ID around to simply gain entrance into arenas, was a late signee with North Carolina and has never logged more than 11 minutes in a single game. Watts is a senior, but Williams said he has spent a total of “six or seven minutes” as a point guard during his entire career.
“As long as their hearts aren’t beating so fast that they don’t pass out before they get to the court,” Williams said, “I think we’ll still have five guys starting.”
Groce said Marshall’s injury status obviously affected his game plan this week, but his staff has prepared for a healthy Marshall to appear for the Tar Heels. If the Cooper vs. Marshall matchup does not materialize, though, Groce said he will adjust. “I hope he’s healthy,” Groce said. “Obviously, you’ve gotta have some kind of contingency plans in your mind in terms of offensive and defensive strategy. It does make it difficult because he makes them a different team.”
Regardless of who plays, Williams responded to all of the media attention on Marshall and Ohio’s Cinderella run by simplifying the situation the best he could. “The game’s still gonna start at zero to zero,” Williams said. “At this stage, everybody’s equal.”
No matter if you’re from Athens or Chapel Hill.
Danny Spewak is an RTC Correspondent covering the Midwest Regional in St. Louis this weekend. You can follow him on Twitter @dspewak.