2002 had been the last time the MAC reached the Sweet 16. I was a naïve college brat, thinking that MAC basketball was a sustainable powerful mid-major conference that the nation could dance to for years. Antonio Gates averaged over 18 points per contest as the Golden Flashes were finally tripped up in large fashion by national runner-up Indiana. Gates looked like a good power forward who could break camp with an NBA team and oh wait never mind he went to the NFL to play tight end, of course. (Back when Kent State needed people on offense — can you remember such a time?)
It took 10 years for the MAC to return to the Sweet 16, and after five years I thought it'd take 20. The conference was getting bad. The weirdest was in 2009 when three teams claimed a share of the MAC West ... with 7-9 records. Bizarre champions gave way to competitive parity but on the whole, the conference wasn't sizing up with the power conferences anymore. MAC football was gaining popularity on weeknights as the Missouri Valley, CAA and Horizon (RIP MCC) vaulted ahead in basketball prowess, perhaps because they didn't waste their money on FBS luxuries.
Then along came the Ohio Bobcats ... a 9-seed tearing their way through the MAC tournament in 2010, winning it.
Two conclusions can be drawn when a No. 9 seed wins a conference tournament:
1. It is competitive.
2. It has no great teams.
I'm inclined to believe that no other MAC team would've beaten Georgetown by double digits that year. The right team caught fire and could not be stopped. No other explanation exists as to what Armon Bassett ate for breakfast for those two weeks, because he was the hottest basketball player on the planet, as far as I'm concerned, during that time period.
With many new faces other than DJ Cooper and head coach John Groce, they returned to the tournament in 2012, but this time everyone was aware of their upset ability, since their season was way more productive. They beat Michigan. They beat South Florida. And they almost, again defying all odds, almost beat North Carolina.
This year, with the exception of Groce and 10th man TyQuane Gourd, it's the same team again. We have a dynasty in the making.
There were expectations last year of how well this team could be — I even remember ESPN analysts dropping their name in December as a potential Final Four team — and they lived up to everything they could have dreamed. When a MAC team reaches the Sweet 16, that's a hell of a season. I've written as much before.
Suddenly the school brings back head coach Jim Christian from basketball purgatory, something that TCU probably doesn't like to be called. They're a good program, sure, but they do not appear to be in any shape to compete in the Big XII, at least until they start recruiting like one. Christian was turning a corner in Fort Worth, going 18-15 last year in the Mountain West, but that wasn't going last when they had to annually face Kansas, Kansas State, Texas, Baylor, Oklahoma State ... a losing season was almost written on the walls for the immediate future. But he can win at Ohio for the near future.
The nonconference schedule is not overly daunting but there are trophies to be bagged: mostly Memphis, but also UMass and Oklahoma. Anything better than 10-3 will be fairly satisfactory for the team. But this is the 2012-13 Ohio freakin' Bobcats. They don't want satisfactory. They want to reach new plateaus. Don't we all.
You know the major players, but here's a reminder. DJ Cooper is the playmaker, the point guard, and yet the game need not live and die by his passes and shots - although sometimes you'd think so, given the result and urgency with which he plays. Walter Offutt is your primary 3-point weapon, and North Carolina knows that all too well. Ivo Baltic is a terrific forward whose Eastern Euro-American roots have grasped the art of the mid-range jumper. Reggie Keely is the other major player inside who can post-up and rebound.
Going down the list of non-seniors are a bunch of necessary contributors. Jon Smith could be their top defensive player (he led them in blocks). Nick Kellogg: another big shooter. Neat reserves T.J. Hall, Ricardo Johnson will pick up some minutes when the other guys get tired, eventually. Sophomore guard Stevie Taylor, when he's not taunting Akron's bench, is there to give Cooper a much-needed respite from time to time, and he can be electric as well. Forward Kadeem Green, a Missouri transfer, can play for the Bobcats a month into the season, when his second semester of sitting out is completed in mid-December.
What this all adds up to, and you saw much of this all year: one person will not beat you, although they can win that way. Maybe Cooper puts up 15-8-8. Perhaps Offutt or Baltic scores 20. But odds are it's going to be a five-man effort, wearing down a team who can't stack up at every position, then expose the mismatch.
It sounds so simple, in the genesis of November, that Ohio could cakewalk through the conference. Although didn't we say the same thing about their football team in August? Looking back, yes of course they could have. It's a matter of possibility and probability. The odds are always against any one team winning the conference, especially this one. But if they win for three times in four years, and return to the Sweet 16 (or beyond) then it could become a tipping point where, rather than Ohio playing in the MAC, the MAC could be known as the conference in which Ohio plays.
I don't want to ruin the ending for you. It could be a 20-win season at worst. Maybe they get tripped up in the MAC tournament — after all they're going to lose games in conference play, so it's not out of the question — find themselves in the NIT or CBI, and make a deep run. They could be an at-large bid, which would further speak to the ubiquity of Ohio as a necessary MAC powerhouse, but also strengthen the basketball portfolio if Akron or Buffalo reach and play well in the first round. Or maybe they just shred through the conference, grasp one of those top two seeds, win two games in Cleveland and dance the March away. Everything is on the table.
The hardest part about reaching the Sweet 16 with mostly juniors and bringing back your nine best players is most expect the team to do it again. If that's the lofty goal they want, then good luck to 'em. The odds are against them getting that far again, but that's the type of adversity that drives a team to be successful.