It might still be football season but for many fans, especially fans of the Ohio Bobcats, basketball season can't come soon enough. But now it is November, a month in which fall fades into winter, and football fades into basketball. They are two sports as different as jazz and rock n' roll, as philosopher and regional manager Michael Scott eloquently states.
Where Ohio football has fought to keep its head above water, Ohio men's basketball should soar. Where the football team has had to rely on its younger players, the basketball team will turn to a select few upperclassmen.
There is plenty of change on this basketball team as well. Gone are seniors Nick Kellogg and T.J. Hall, as well as head coach Jim Christian who left for the apparently greener pastures of Boston College. In his wake he has left a slew of talented players, and new coach Saul Phillips was an excellent choice to replace him.
Last season was about as frustrating as a 25-11 season can be. Despite losing D.J. Cooper, they had talent in players like Maurice Ndour and Kellogg and were a pick to finish near the top of the MAC East. But the team struggled in February, losing heartbreakers to Akron and Buffalo, the two teams that would finish above Ohio. The team seemed unfocused at times, often spotting their opponents a large lead (like facing a 15-point deficit to Miami) and then trying to battle back.
The late season struggle and third place meant no bye for the Bobcats in the MAC tournament. After besting Ball State and Miami, Ohio fell to Akron in another close game, effectively ending the Bobcats season (unless you count the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, which nobody does).
Saul Phillips' season did not end in mid-March, however. By last season, Phillips had notched a 134-84 record in seven years at North Dakota State. That season, he had led NDSU to their second NCAA Tournament appearance during his tenure. Few picked Phillips' Bison to defeat fifth-seeded Oklahoma, probably due to the fact that they were from North Dakota. But Phillips had put together a balanced, confident team that had beaten Notre Dame earlier that year. The Bison were cool and collected against the Sooners, rallying late to force overtime and then making the most of opportunities to put the game away in overtime for the program's first ever NCAA Tournament victory.
The departure of senior Nick Kellogg was undoubtedly the most painful. Kellogg had a particularly strong senior year, averaging 33 minutes and fifteen and a half points per game. But the arrival of Phillips should make up the difference, and Bobcat fans should expect their team to battle it out with Akron this year for the top spot in the MAC East.
Phillips settled in quickly, getting commitments from nine new players, travelling to Montreal to take part in a tournament and quickly building camaraderie with the team. For the season to be a success, Phillips must encourage the best performances out of his top players and try to keep his depth-limited team injury free.
His greatest weapon this season will be Maurice Ndour. Ndour's long journey from his home country of Senegal to Japan and now to Ohio will come to an end this year when he graduates in the spring. Named to the Preseason All-MAC team, Ndour will look to go out with a bang and improve on his junior year in which he averaged fourteen points per game.
Ndour has the height to post up in the paint, the skill to sink shots beyond the arc, and the agility and wingspan to cover just about any man on the court. Ohio's most dynamic player spent the summer representing his home country in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, facing some of the globe's best competition. Phillips is hoping that experience will make the MAC seem like child's play this season for Ndour.
Ndour will be the centerpiece of the 2014-15 Bobcats, but he'll be surrounded by plenty of other talented players. Seniors Stevie Taylor and Javarez Willis will battle for the point guard spot; both saw considerable playing time off the bench last season and combined for 183 assists but both struggled with turnovers. Taylor holds a slight edge but has had trouble with injuries over his career. Phillips has considered playing Willis at point guard but concedes it might limit the team defensively (both are under 6 feet). Options in the frontcourt include Antonio Campbell, Wadly Mompremier and fan favorite Treg Setty.
Phillips will also have some new options to play with. He has already expressed his preference for freshmen Ryan Taylor and Mike Laster, saying that they both have a good shot at starting all four years of their career. Phillips also has an interesting option in Kenny Kaminski, a transfer from Michigan State who led the Big Ten in 3-point field-goal percentage at almost 50%. Kaminski has applied for a waiver to play this year but the school hasn't heard back yet on that ruling.
While some teams are content to cruise through November and December crushing weaker teams, the Bobcats have set up a non-conference schedule that is anything but easy. Florida Gulf Coast, a recent tournament Cinderella, is the Bobcats' third contest of the year. Over the rest of 2014, Ohio will face potential Tournament teams like Belmont and St. Bonaventure, and finish with an improved Evansville team.
After participating Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu over Christmas break, the team will dig into its MAC schedule. A mid-January game against Toledo, the favorite in the West, will be the first big test. But if the Bobcats want to return to the Big Dance, they'll need to take care of business against Buffalo, Kent State, and especially Akron (the Zips' visit to Athens on February 4 should be the Convo's biggest game).
"If your plan is to be here, like mine is, you want to keep building, building, building," Phillips said in an interview on Ohio's athletic site. He will be the third head coach since 2008. A strong season would be an excellent foundation on which to construct the kind of program Phillips wants to be built. Winning the MAC certainly won't be easy, and the schedule is often brutal- but Phillips and his team are certainly capable.