Down two to Denver, with 19 seconds on the clock, the entire 2012-2013 season came down to one play for the Ohio Bobcats. The 'Cats knew what they wanted to do, find big man Reggie Keely down low where the senior had been so successful all season.
Keely had dominated in the paint all night (12 points in the key). So when senior assists-machine D.J. Cooper found an uncontested Keely right under the basket everyone thought the shot was going to go in. Until it didn't, bouncing off the rim. Denver's renascence man Chris Udofia snagged the rebound and before Ohio had time to regroup defensively and get in a foul, Royce O'Neale slammed the ball in to seal the win for Denver and end the 'Cats season.
That's when the groaning really began. Sure, Ohio fans had griped all season long about the teams performance. When the 'Cats lost both regular season games, many were willing to call the whole season a failure. But somehow they bounced back, and with the help of unforeseeable circumstances, were able to grab a share of the Mid-American Conference regular season title for the first time in 19 seasons.
Then there was the MAC Championship game. That is when the whole season became a bust, according to many. Losing badly to the arch-rival Akron Zips and failing to make it to the NCAA tournament after last seasons Cinderella run was unacceptable by many. Fan's were calling for head coach Jim Christian's job.
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The Denver loss made it official though, this team had failed. Miserably. Not only had they not beaten Akron once (in three tries) but they also failed to make it to the NCAA tournament and couldn't even get a win in the 'lowly' NIT. So the season had to be a failure, after all this same squad had came within a point of knocking off North Carolina last march in the Sweet Sixteen.
The fans had solid points, but they couldn't be more wrong about it all.
The season, though not ending how people expected, was far from a failure. It wasn't the smashing success of the 2011-2012 season, but in no ways was the encore a bust. It was actually quite a successful season, here's why:
No. 5 - They had a target on their backs.
Never before in the history of the program has a team had so much success. Last season's trip to the Sweet Sixteen might not have been the deepest the team has ever went, but then again the tournament wasn't as large back when Ohio made the Elite Eight (1964) as it is now. Over the past four seasons Ohio has knocked off two highly ranked teams (Georgetown and Michigan) in the NCAA Tournament, won two brilliant MAC Championship games (both against Akron, a team that has won at least a share of the MAC regular season title in seven straight seasons) oh and won a combined four-year total of 94 wins which is by far the best in program history.
After last seasons run, Ohio was no longer some little unknown school. They officially arrived when they not only knocked off No. 4 seed Michigan in the opening round but also were a single shot away from beating No. 1 seed North Carolina. Success like that breads envy, it also gets you noticed.
It was clear from the start that teams were taking Ohio more serious this year. That is a huge reason why Ohio struggled so mightily on the road in non-conference play. No one was going to give Ohio a win this year, not after they proved how deadly they were last March. Oh and remember that Akron team Ohio had twice beaten in the MAC Championship game? Well they too were gunning to knock off Ohio all season. The 'Cats were dealing with a large target on their back and at times struggled to deal with the pressure. That's expected for a team that had never won at such a consistent level before.
No. 4 - The MAC's top schools were better.
Yes, overall the MAC was down this year, but the top three teams in the MAC were better than they had been in past seasons. Akron was vastly improved, despite loosing Quincy Diggs before the year began. Demetrius Treadwell was a stud. His performances down the stretch for Akron were there reason the Zips were able to bounce back and hang on to the top dog status in the MAC. His freakish athletic ability wasn't utilized nearly as often last season and this year he was a difference maker. Zeke Marshall also stepped up, not only did he finish in the top-five in the nation in blocked shots, across the board the 7-footer's stats were up. It's no fluke the Zips held the nations longest winning streak at one point this season.
Oh and Western Michigan was also pretty good. The third best team in the MAC was a solid squad all season. The bigs on the Broncos squad are arguably the best combo in the conference and WMU never went down without a fight. Kent State, Buffalo and Bowling Green might all have taken a step back but they weren't scrubs by any means. Especially Buffalo which stepped up big down the stretch, making an impressive late season bid.
In the West division Ball State was actually a better squad and overall the level of talent seemed to take a step up this season in the conference. Factor all that in and it's no wonder we got to witness such an interesting final stretch heading into the MAC tournament. The conference as a whole may have been down but the top schools were much more evenly matched then before. Ohio benefited big time from only having to face WMU once in the regular season.
No. 3 - Ohio was dealing with a tougher schedule.
First let's get this out of the way. Yes the RPI was down this year. But last season Ohio had a Strength of Schedule grade of 184 according to ESPN.com's RPI tracker. This year the 'Cats had a strength of schedule ranking of 153. In fact, this season Ohio played three teams (Memphis, Belmont and Akron) who received NCAA tournament bids compared to just one (Louisville) a year ago.
In ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi's preferred RPI formula (known as LRPI), which removes home games from the equation, the 'Cats fared better this year (40) than last season (64) despite their road woes. They also played a handful of teams with phenomenal scorers who had great seasons in their own right. People say Ohio wasn't as good as last year, but the 'Cats schedule was actually tougher this season.
No. 2 - Ohio went 24-9 and won a share of the MAC regular season title.
The 'Cats finished the season with 24 wins on the year. That's right folks, 24. That's better than traditional basketball powerhouses Connecticut (20), Cincinnati (22), Illinois (23), Kentucky (21) and Arkansas (19). Oh that is also better than everyone else in the MAC, besides Akron.
Ohio had a better record than the conference champions of eight (that's EIGHT) leagues across the nation. Even after going 2-5 in the month of December. The mere fact that this team was able to bounce back from such a rough stretch to have one of its better regular seasons in program history alone makes this season a success. They also happened to win a share of the MAC regular season title, something that hadn't been achieved by an Ohio team since Gary Trent's team won the MAC in 1993-1994.
The 14 wins in conference play were the most ever by Ohio in a 16 game conference schedule. Ohio also managed to go 7-1 in MAC road games this season, also a program best. They won 20 or more games for the third time in four seasons and only the 20th time in program history. Not bad for a bunch of underachievers. Sure they didn't make a late season run, but it's arrogant for Ohio fans to call a 24 win season a 'failure'.
No. 1 - They were playing under a new head coach.
This isn't an excuse, or a way of blaming new head coach Jim Christian. It's actually impressive the Bobcats played so well considering they were without the architect of last years triumphs, John Groce, who was wooed away by the big bucks of Big Ten basketball. It's not everyday you lose an amazing coach like Groce and are able to retain the success in stride under a completely new system. They hired Christian to replace him and despite the grumblings of some fans it was a phenomenal hire.
Not only has Christian compiled the best winning percentage in MAC history (.750) between his time at Kent State and his first year at Ohio, but he was able to win 24 games with a team that goes completely against his game plan. Groce loved the high octane, small lineup that could shoot the lights out. His full court offense was what this current roster was designed for. Christian is a much different coach.
He relies on a half-court offense that requires more inside play from the bigs. Something Ohio forward Ivo Baltic just couldn't adapt to this season. He played nice, tailoring his offense to fit the current 'Cats but it was clear that these guys were not the right ones to run a Christian offense to optimal success. Granted they did a pretty good job of working together to compromise, but based on the style of players Christian is bringing in next season it's clear he want's a more physical pick-and-roll happy style of play.
The smallest guy in Christian's first recruiting class at Ohio is a 6-foot-5 inch wing man who lead his team to a 27-2 record and a berth in the state semi-finals. Then there is this guy, Maurice Ndour a 6-foot-9 inch JUCO player with high-major talent. Christian is going to lead this program to more success down the road, the fact that he came in and lead a team to 24 wins in his first season should be proof enough. This team won 24 games, a share of a co-MAC regular season title and a birth in a post season tournament all while playing under a style they weren't completely comfortable with. That in itself is impressive.
So there it is, five reasons why this season was actually a success for Ohio.