ATHENS, OHIO — How do you go about replacing the greatest team in your program's history? That's the question the Ohio Men's Basketball team faced when it stepped on the court today, and judging by the results of its season-opening 75-64 win over Northern Iowa, you do it by committee. Four Ohio players scored double-digits in the win, showing off the team's depth and versatility in the process.
The 2013-2014 Ohio Bobcats look resoundingly different from last year's team, and it was clear from the moment their starting lineup was announced. Gone are four of the team's main starters from a season ago, in their place are some familiar faces such as Jon Smith, Ricardo Johnson and Stevie Taylor. There's also a slew of new faces, including junior forward Maurice Ndour. But, the new look 'Cats didn't appear to suffer from any identity criss issues. This team knew its plan of attack from the beginning.
After controlling the pace of the game for most of the afternoon, Ohio found itself in a tight spot with the Panthers closing in late in the second half. That's when Nick Kellogg stepped in as the next man up for Ohio. He score 12 points in the final seven minutes, including six in the last two, including a reverse layup from the baseline that words can't do justice, sealing the win for Ohio.
"I don’t know about all of that," Kellogg said when asked if he's the guy to take the last shot for Ohio. "We’re challenging ourselves with the schedule because we believe in our potential so our goal is to just get better each and every day."
With Ndour attacking the basket and Taylor running the point like it'd been his job for years, Ohio leapt out to an early 9-4 lead just four minutes in. Running a mix of 2-3 zone and man, Ohio's defense smothered the Northern Iowa offense, which also featured a slew of new starters. The 'Cats forced seven turnovers in the first half. They managed 11 points off those turnovers, and dominated the paint taking a 39-32 lead into halftime.
Ndour showed off his post moves, grabbing putback after putback, and even slamming a few in to the ooh's and ahh's of the crowd. The JUCO transfer showed off the skills that have many thinking he'll be the star of the team by season's end, putting out the best performance of all in Saturday's home-opener. The Senegalese-big man even showed off his touch, draining a pair of threes in the game. He led the game with 20 points, on 8-for-12 shooting, including 2-for-4 from three-point range.
"I didn’t even know I had 20," Ndour said. "I wasn’t nervous at all, I was kind of excited."
He also added five boards, and a pair of assists in the game. His head coach, Jim Christian, sang the praise of him afterwards, saying that he felt despite it being just one game Ndour played with confidence on both ends of the floor.
The team played like a group of veterans who've been working together for years. Ricardo Johnson looked like a new player, a near clone of Walter Offutt if you will, notching 14 points, four boards, a pair of assists and a pair of steals working as the Ohio renaissance man in the game. He even showed off an improved jump shot, and went 3-for-4 from behind the three-point line.
Defensively, Ohio struggled to control the boards, allowing 12 rebounds to the Panthers, but held their big men Seth Tuttle, Ted Friedman and Nate Buss to a combined eight points in the game. Ndour and Smith were an imposing shot-blocking force, with two and for blocks respectively.
"Me and Jon, we’ve got long arms and we make sure we protect our rim, "Ndour said of the duo's performance.
Smith struggled on the boards, and offensively looked sluggish, but with Ndour's offensive firepower it was a non-issue.
Taylor was the fourth player to manage double-digit scoring for the 'Cats, notching 10 points and eight assists as the starting point guard and far out performing Javarez Willis on the court. Willis, making his first appearance since 2011-2012 when he played at Texas Tech, the junior looked rusty, managing just six points on 2-of-8 shooting and struggling to facilitate.
Though there were plenty of positives to take away from the win, there were some signs of trouble. Ohio was tagged with 18 fouls on the day, and was out gained on the glass, an area the team had severe issues in a year ago.
Ohio will need to shore up those issues if it wants a shot at winning its next contest, a road trip to take on the No. 11 Ohio state Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday.