We all got the chance to fall in love with Ohio last season. During the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the Bobcats pulled off the upsets that make March Madness what it is. That all came on the heels of a MAC Championship Game that took a made free throw on an attempted miss by Akron's Alex Abreu to even put D.J. Cooper and company in the bracket.
It all almost came together on that fateful Sweet 16 night, with Walter Offutt stepping up and making North Carolina forget that this team was about more than Cooper all season long. If only regulation had been a minute longer, Ohio would have had the momentum to get over the Tar Heels. But it wasn't to be.
Following up that performance -- even just making it back to the Tournament -- would be quite a feat, but the Bobcats seem to be set for just that. Of all the pieces that were crucial to last season's run, only one won't be back this year: former head coach John Groce, who departed for Illinois.
But welcome in Jim Christian, who previously had success at Kent State before heading down to TCU to try his hand there. And while changing coaches might normally be something that could make you pause, Christian has a similar coaching style to Groce's, and should meld seamlessly into what is left behind.
Christian is cautious entering the year though:
"This is something I've already talked about with these guys," Christian said. "There's a very fine line in between a special, special season in the MAC -- which they had last year, getting to the Sweet 16 -- and nothing," Christian said.
The key to Ohio's success last year wasn't just D.J. Copper, an 8.12 HW30 player that helped define one of the one-hit wonders of 2011. It was more about the defense.
The Bobcats forced turnovers on 26.4 percent of their opponents' possessions last season, second best in the country (behind Virginia Commonwealth). They held down 3-point shooting percentages, and kept their opponents from lighting up the scoreboard.
As you would imagine, most of that defense came from Offutt (12.58 DEF100) and Cooper (11.58 DEF100). Ivo Baltic and Jon Smith, while not liabilities on the defensive end, didn't turn in the numbers that you would equate with a strong inside presence. They are exactly stopping opponents in their tracks like the center on Ohio's strongest competition for the MAC title, Akron's Zeke Marshall.
But Cooper and Offutt can stop opponents, most of the time before they can start into their offensive sets. And that will continue to be the difference this season. Defense was a hallmark of the Christian Kent State teams. They were among the national leaders in forced turnovers each season, and rated highly nationally in tempo-free defensive ratings, according to KenPom.com ($).
So the real question will be if the Bobcats can keep it up on offense. Cooper and Offutt both have a lot on the line as they put together their final resumes for the NBA Draft. As we have seen, Cooper can sometimes push too hard on offense, and cause the Bobcats to end up with several empty possessions in a row. It would seem that making sure that Baltic, Smith and the rest of the cast, contribute as much as they can would be important to success, especially when Cooper is cold.
If there is one thing that is concerning (other than a Cooper miss streak), it might be Ohio's tendency to put their opponents on the line. Games won and lost because of free throws? No, that couldn't happen to Ohio... /sarcasm.
The Bobcats have a tough run n the middle of the non-conference season when they can separate themselves from the mid-major pack. They face Richmond, St. Bonaventure, Robert Morris, Memphis and Oakland all in a two-week stretch that could make or break the seeding for Ohio if they make it back to the Tournament. And that will depend on taking care of business in the MAC again this year, and taking out Akron again (even without Quincy Diggs).
Bottom Line: Ohio reminded us why we love the NCAA Tournament, and almost made that special run that is remembered for years to come. A Sweet 16 appearance is far from a disappointment, no matter then ending, and this season should come with certain expectations based on how well things went for the Bobcats.
If the defense remains as strong as last year (and it should), it will come down to scoring to the Bobcats and getting contributions from somewhere other than the starting guards. If Ohio can put it together, only Akron (or some badly timed fouls) could stand in their way of another Tournament appearance, a better seed than a 13, and a deep run.