Much like his football counterpart Frank Solich, men's basketball head coach John Groce has done a whale of job with his program at Ohio University. Groce's finest moment at Ohio came after winning the MAC Tournament in 2010 when the Bobcats defeated Georgetown in the first round. That upset gave the Bobcats their 15 seconds of fame and painted a pretty picture for Ohio's future.
Though the Bobcats were unable to follow that up with another tournament birth last season, the pressure is off Ohio to live up to the standard they set against the Hoyas and its starting to look like the Bobcats might be able to embrace that underdog role once again, only this time for an entire season.
There aren't many people that expect Ohio to win the MAC this year, in the regular season or in the conference tournament, but Groce has made it clear that he thinks this is the best group he's had since he's been in Athens. The Bobcats did lose two key players to graduation in DeVaughn Washington and Tommy Freeman but they also have a trio of new faces and a group with no seniors, so this is a team with players that have grown together for a few years and a couple of recruits. Perhaps that means that Ohio's peak will be when guys like Reggie Keely, Ivo Baltic, Walter Offutt and D.J. Cooper are seniors but it seems like this group is ready to compete for the MAC title right now.
Ohio Bobcats Basketball Roster
The most important and decisive player for the Bobcats will continue to be D.J. Cooper. Cooper showed clear signs of improvement last year after Armon Bassett passed him the keys to the offense but there is still room to grow for the third year starter. Cooper was the second best assist man in the entire country last season behind only Malcolm Griffin of Toledo. His ability to create for others is easily his best asset and it's probably the most vital component for Ohio's offense. That said, the Bobcats' could be even better offensively if Cooper were to develop a consistent scoring role.
Cooper can get to the basket and shoot pretty well but he hasn't found a perfect middle ground between the two, leading to two straight seasons with a field goal percentage below 40%. If you are taking 13 or 14 shots per game, you can't shoot below 40%. Cooper isn't unable to improve on this, he just has to be able to be efficient when scoring the ball. Perhaps that means taking less shots, and at the end of the day, if he has the ball and he isn't shooting it, he's probably creating an easy look for a teammate, which will help the offense even more. This is the next step in Cooper's development and if he figures that out Ohio can reach the next level offensively.
Defensively, Cooper continues to be one of the best thieves in the nation. He ranked 56th in the nation in steal percentage last year and averaged 2.3 steals per game. Disrupting the oppositions' offense and setting the tempo is one of Cooper's best attributes and when he's getting the ball on the run that is when the Bobcats are at their best.
The Bobcats will go as D.J. does this season. After playing with Bassett and Washington during his first two years, Cooper is now the clear leader on this team and he's going to be running the offense without a bailout option alongside him. Hopefully that means he takes less chances and dominates the game simply by remaining under control. If he can do that, the Bobcats will be dangerous.
Nick Kellogg was one of Ohio's biggest contributors off the bench last season and it would appear that he will be asked to take on a larger role this season, even if it means just playing for a few more minutes. With a player like Cooper running point, it's necessary for Ohio to space the floor with shooters. Whether it's in semi-transition or on a dribble drive that Cooper draws extra defenders on, he's an expert at kicking it out to the wings and Kellogg is without question Ohio's best three-point shooter now that Freeman is gone. Kellogg is a tough defender that can drive to the basket as well, but he's a terrific spot-up shooter and will likely be the offense's most efficient scorer at the end of the season.
On the topic of shooting guards, watch out for Ricardo Johnson this season, who has improved his standstill three-point shot and may be able to spell Kellogg effectively in that regard.
Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely will be the starting big men for the Bobcats this season and it will be important for at least one of them to emerge as a goto post threat. They both have the ability to do so but they were a little hampered by DeVaughn Washington so they need to take advantage of the opening for top big man on the team. Baltic was the most efficient scorer on the team last season, putting up 11.4 points per game on 54% shooting, so he may have the upperhand, but Keely has made strides and will have a chance to prove himself early in the season.
If Baltic and Keely don't step up, look for Jon Smith to step in and contribute. He may not be as polished in the post but he's improved his jumpshot and he's an extremely active and long defender. There is a bit of upside with Smith as well when it comes to his offense and his defense will be important for the Bobcats in any role he is asked to play.
Stevie Taylor is the most polarizing newcommer if we are judging by Twitter followers but Walter Offutt is likely to be the most impactful addition for the Bobcats this season. The former Ohio State Buckeye is a good defender, a vocal leader and a versatile offensive player that can shoot and drive. Fresh off of a toe injury, Offutt showed off his ability in Ohio's opening scrimmage against Mercyhurst when he scored 23 points. Offutt and T.J. Hall will likely be in a battle for the starting small forward spot all season long.
Taylor will be thrust into action as well. He's the team's back-up point guard and he will be asked to run the offense for spurts when Cooper rests. He's very quick, can squeeze through defenders, has changed his shot since his high school days (for the better) and has a Cooper-like ability on defense to find the ball and take it away. Taylor's only issue is that he is my height and I am five-foot-nine (and three quarters). TyQuane Goard, the other freshman, may not get as much playing time as Taylor because of the amount of players ahead of him on the depth chart but he is a very raw player that has a lot of room to grow. He is already an excellent rebounder and with work his offensive game will grow. This might not be his year but he and Taylor will be an exciting duo in 2013.
A Story of Redemption
Prediction: I think OHIO will win the MAC tournament this year, with a 19-11 record overall and an 11-5 record in conference play.