This took entirely too long to enjoy, but perhaps the waiting made it even better.
In 2002, Kent State bore through Oklahoma State, Alabama and Pittsburgh to reach the Elite Eight. It was the last time a Mid-American Conference team was even one of the final sixteen teams to play. The following year (Central Michigan over Creighton) would be the conference's last win in The Tournament for quite a while.
2002 was the last great tournament run and 2003 featured the last great NBA prospect (Chris Kaman). This was followed by seven years of regression to a one-bid conference and, don't get me wrong, the MAC still has a ways to get back to the strength of the 90s. But in a weekend like the one the 2011-2012 Ohio Bobcats had against Michigan and South Florida, there's no way I can worry about that anymore.
This was a victory for Athens, Ohio but also for the entire Mid-American Conference. And what traditionally happens when the Sweet 16 is reached is to look at the conferences that made it and which ones are most represented — or there at all. Nobody from the Pac-12. None from the vaunted Mountain West, Conference USA, WAC, Missouri Valley, Horizon, CAA, or the trendy Summit League. These are all teams with higher conference RPI than the MAC, which stands at 17th out of 32. The lower half.
Those who followed MACsketball this year knew all too well of the top heaviness. Akron, Buffalo, OHIO and Kent State were all teams capable of pulling off maybe a first-round victory. And even I had my doubts about OHIO this year as they had some curious losses to the non-"Big Four" of the MAC. A loss to Bowling Green. A worse loss to Toledo. The worst loss of all to Eastern Michigan — by THIRTEEN POINTS and never led. (If you still didn't think Rob Murphy is MAC Coach of the Year.)
I'm trying to picture Akron doing this, or Buffalo, or even Kent State. We're playing with hypothetical matches at this point. And the realism is that Akron couldn't beat ugly duckling Northwestern in the NIT, Kent State was demolished by something called "USC Upstate" in something else called the "CIT," and Buffalo went 1-1 in the aforementioned weird tournament. So maybe they weren't tournament ready.
Maybe OHIO was the only team who could do this: Get to the Sweet 16 and make the MAC proud.
Other deep questions about the future are in question, such as: does John Groce stick around with this team? After all, DJ Cooper was coaxed by Baylor and Tennessee two years ago to transfer away and he stayed loyal to the program. Does Groce, to whom the same rules do not apply, stick around and coach this bunch for one more year, or does he go Geno Ford on the program and leave in this dynasty's junior year?
Ah, but there I go worrying again. The point is not what happens to this team next year, for better or worse: we simply will never know until next year. Right now we do know that this team remains alive and kicking in the NCAA tournament. Another year of strength guarantees nothing because while the tournament relies on having talent, just talk to Duke or Missouri about time, opportunity and execution. Guarantees are sparse if existent when 19-23-year-old men are involved. After all, once Kent State reached the quarterfinals of last year's NIT, wasn't this supposed to be their year?
Instead it's OHIO's turn, because that's just how this stuff happens. And not a lot of us thought this — although I think a lot of MAC viewers saw this potentially occurring. OHIO was the 51st most popular pick for a Sweet 16 team at a 0.4% rate and I do consider myself as part of the elite. But remember that South Florida was less frequent a pick. So, again. Opportunity.
The game of basketball affords "lesser" teams to win at a decent rate, therefore the tournament is built around that. And to stay consistent with the mantra of The Mid Majority, at some point OHIO's season will end with a loss. Their next game is Friday against North Carolina, a team that began the year No. 1 in the polls and never left the top ten. Now, fortune may have struck the Bobcats yet again if UNC's point guard Kendall Marshall is unable to play due to a broken hand, which ... um, it's a broken hand so this seems very likely. Of course what makes these teams so great is that they are not reliant on one player. Their backup point guard is likely as capable as his depth chart superior. If Cooper breaks his hand the game is over before the tipoff.
We may not be back to the days of Wally World and Earl Boykins. That may take a few years or it may never happen. It could be one-bid until the end of days. So let's just ride the wave. They're legitimate (we knew this) and their season remains alive. Therefore pick your OHIOized MAC logo and let's just see where this goes.