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Wednesday, March 21,2012

Sweet-16 bound 'Cats catch on everywhere

By Adam Flango
Photo Credits: Joel Hawksley/Ohio University Athletic Department.
Photo Caption: Ohio guard Walter Offutt puts up a shot over South Florida forward Augustus Gilchrist in the first half. Offutt led the team with 21 points in the game.

Hilton Head is roughly 10 hours away from Athens and anchors the southernmost tip of South Carolina. Ohio University students know the island well. Every Memorial Day weekend, hundreds, if not thousands, of OU students invade the beaches and enjoy the warm weather and mellow atmosphere.

But on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, about two months before Memorial Day, visitors to the resort island as well as locals have Ohio on their minds. An elderly couple zipped past on their bicycles and raised their fists in support of a hunter green Ohio University T-shirt and said, "Go Bobcats!" At a nearby bike rack, a different couple said how excited they were after watching Ohio take down Michigan last Friday night, then South Florida on Sunday, even though their only affiliation with the university was living in the same state.

A family of five walked off the dock at the picturesque Harbour Town and shared the same sentiment: "Hey! OU! Can't wait until Friday!"

Then, a pair of golfing buddies rode past wearing University of North Carolina gear. "Hey, you guys are going down!" they yelled good-naturedly.

That's what this year's unprecedented run by Ohio's men's basketball squad has done for the program and the university. It has made the Ohio name mean something in sports conversations. For fans and students, that is something important.

For years, students have had to clarify to distant family members that they went to Ohio, not Ohio State. They have not had the opportunity to take pride in sports, namely because they have never had anything to call their own.

But now they do.

Ohio's men's basketball team is in the midst of a thrilling run to the Sweet Sixteen. In the second round of the NCAA Tournament against No. 4 seed Michigan, many fans penciled the Bobcats in as a win simply because they still have fresh memories of the 2010 win over No. 3 seed Georgetown. They may have outwardly believed the team could win but pessimism lurked in the back of their minds.

But whatever pessimism lingered in the minds of fans was completely absent in the thoughts of the players. And that's what has made the difference.

Coach John Groce has not implemented any game-altering plays. Despite D.J. Cooper's continued stellar play and Walter Offutt's fantastic performance against South Florida in the third round, the team has still relied on a team-oriented, defense-first approach instead of superstars carrying a team.

It's their unmatched confidence that has raised them to seemingly unreachable heights. Former Yankee great Yogi Berra once said that 90 percent of the game is half mental, and nowhere is that more evident than during the NCAA Tournament. Teams that have backed their way into the field rarely come out with the requisite intensity and fight to carry the day.

Meanwhile, the teams that have fought and clawed their way for just one opportunity to shine on a national stage, teams like this year's Ohio squad, are especially dangerous.

For the first two games, Ohio was extremely confident. Feeding off of their uber-confident leaders, Cooper and Groce, the team has played like they were the favorite despite their underdog status.

That confidence is evidenced not only by the cold-blooded shots, "going for the jugular" as Groce likes to say, but by their on-court demeanor. When the opposition has made brief runs, the Bobcats have not betrayed any anxiety. They have not lost their cool or committed silly turnovers in crucial moments. Each game has been within reach from either side in the last 90 seconds, and Ohio has proved to be the smarter, more efficient team. That's a rare thing for a mid-major going against schools from powerhouse conferences like the Big Ten and Big East.

Now, the 'Cats run into arguably the biggest team, literally and figuratively, of them all — North Carolina. The Tar Heels will dress six players that have the potential to be first-round picks in the NBA Draft in the near future, while Ohio will be lucky if their guys find spots on European teams. (Though there is a slim possibility that Cooper may find his way onto an NBA roster.)

It will be nearly impossible to out-confidence perhaps that most accomplished program ever and a No. 1 seed, but a win Friday would be a big layer of extra icing on the cake.

And for at least one sunny day in Hilton Head, a cocky group of guys from Athens made a North Carolina fan the tiniest bit worried. This team has made the basketball program and the university matter in a brand new way.

So regardless of whether or not the Bobcats fall on Friday, Ohio wins.


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