In today's endless barrage of sports coverage, speculation has become almost as important as the hard news. Writers pore over every statistic and performance, desperate to find something that points to a larger picture or overarching storyline. A player in a slump is over the hill. A team on a losing streak is finished for the season. ESPN has several shows on its fleet of networks in which experts (and Skip Bayless) painstakingly try to explain what it all means and predict the future.
The problem with a lot of these predictions is that they often look at too small of a sample size. A team or player's performance over several games is not indicative of how the rest of the season will play out.
There has been grumbling from corners of the Ohio fan base about the performance of the men's basketball team thus far. The Bobcats have been contenders of the MAC for the past several years, but the team is off to a rough start under new coach Saul Phillips. The Bobcats currently sit at 5-6, tied for the 2nd-worst record in the MAC.
In the season preview, I wrote that winning the MAC would not be easy, but that the 'Cats could do it. As rough as the team's play has been at times, it is a conviction that I still hold today. The conference has too many talented teams to call Ohio a lock, but their season is far from finished.
Don't panic, Bobcat fans.
When I spoke with Saul Phillips prior to the season, he talked about how he would have to learn on the fly about this team and its players while simultaneously navigating the season. He admitted that the games he had lined up for December were difficult. "Maybe too difficult," he said.
Deciding whether a team is good or not based on their non-conference play is a fool's errand. Many teams choose to ease into their season with an easy schedule to help build chemistry and confidence. It gives the team a nice record heading into the new year but can leave a team unprepared to face stronger conference teams.
The Bobcats did not face any ranked teams in non-conference play, but they took on several strong teams that are often on the Selection Committee's radar in March: Florida Gulf Coast University, St. Bonaventure, George Washington University. It's unlikely that any of these teams will crack the Top 25, but each has the potential to go just as far as any major program in the Tournament.
None of the Bobcats' losses are anything to be ashamed of. A lot of fans have never heard of the Evansville Aces, and assume that a loss to them is worse than the Akron Zips losing to, say, Penn State. But the Aces are arguably the best in the Missouri Conference, and even pulled off an impressive win last week against #23 Northern Iowa.
As far as the MAC East goes, only Buffalo and Akron have impressed so far- but neither the Bulls nor Zips have any particularly strong wins that would suggest them as favorites so far. Even at 5-6, the Bobcats are only 3.5 games back of the first place Zips, and that doesn't factor in conference play.
In a way, non-conference games are like preseason games that sorta count. With the turning of the calendar comes somewhat of a fresh start, and the fact is that this Bobcat team retained the upside it had at the beginning of the season. Senior Maurice N'dour is still a top-3 MAC player. Guards Stevie Taylor and Javarez Willis are solid backcourt players. Sophomore Antonio Campbell has built upon his solid freshman season to become a force in the paint. And freshman Ryan Taylor and Mike Laster seem to push their ceiling higher with each game, pointing toward this program's bright future.
In addition to those players, the Bobcats have Phillips- a coach already adored by his players and with the skills to help this team navigate conference play. If there's one person who doesn't need to read this article, it's Phillips. He knows that even if the Bobcat's record isn't pretty, they're better for it.
The non-conference schedule is over, and now the real season begins. The Bobcats are right in the thick of it.