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OU Better Believe It

W. Ross ClitesYour City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO -- Everyone knows that the NCAA Tournament is a guard showcase. Teams, led by a star in the backcourt, negate the seeds in front of the school names. Last night, the Georgetown Hoyas found out that the task of beating an underdog gets exponentially harder when the team has two shining guards.

There are (14) seeds that have won First-Round games before. Never like this. No double-digit seed maintains a steady double-digit lead. Not against a good coach like John Thompson III. Not against a team that was one week removed from the Big East Tournament finals. Ohio never bought into any of that.

I am still in amazement at the domination; Georgetown was never in this game. Ohio even pushed the Hoyas deficit to 19 at one point. This was not a buzzer-beater like Murray State over Vanderbilt earlier in the day. This was methodical. The Ohio Bobcats have become master surgeons in the way they operate offensively. Any spot on the floor that they intend to get to, they do. Any kick-out three in the corner they have open, they knock it down. Their guard penetration is their inside-outside game and, right now, it cannot be stopped.

No one quite knows where this level of execution has been all season, but the important thing to Coach John Groce is that it is here now. As soon as the calendar flipped to March, the Bobcats flipped the switch to the “on” position.

On Thursday night, the Bobcats left Dunkin’ Donuts Arena in Providence, Rhode Island with a 97-83 win. That is not a misprint. 97 points. Only Kentucky put up more points (100) on Day 1--they played a (16) seeded ETSU team and not a Big East powerhouse. On the season, Georgetown only allowed 65.3 PPG to their opponents. The Bobcats’ lateral ball movement in half-court sets as well as their quick transition outlet passes had Georgetown laboring. The Hoyas were always one second too late.

The anatomy of an upset centers on cherishing the ball and catching fire from the perimeter. This was the job description for guards Armon Bassett and D.J. Cooper and they delivered. Ohio had only 11 turnovers to Georgetown’s 18. The Bobcats also shot 56.6%... from three. That is an impressive stat for an overall field goal percentage. Exchanging buckets with your opponent rarely gains separation on the scoreboard. The exception, as it was last night for Ohio, is when you gladly trade 3s for Georgetown 2s. It only got worse for the Georgetown when they tried matching perimeter jump shots and came up with empty one-and-done trips.

As for Ohio’s defense, the world now knows how to baffle a Princeton-style knifing offense. Play an active 2-3 zone, clog the paint, and frustrate their bigs. Georgetown’s Austin Freeman, who averaged 16.7 points on the season, was held to 9. Every call against the Hoyas seemed to derail their comeback more and more. They had that “just not our day” look in their eyes and Ohio took full advantage.

The crowd adopted the Bobcats, which is customary for a neutral crowd in a site far from both team’s home courts. Fans will rally around the upset. The Providence faithful setup the momentum surges and the Ohio three-point barrage added the dagger.

At this point, I want to expand on something I touched on two days ago. It makes this upset even more remarkable. On March 7, the Bobcats season was seconds away from ending. Their record was 17-14 (7-9) as they traveled to Muncie, Indiana for the first round of the MAC tournament. If they lost the game, there would likely have been no postseason appearance of any kind. Not even the lowly Tournament would have taken them. And there they sat--ten points down with ten minutes until the start of the off-season.

The Ohio Bobcats, the nine seed in the MAC, had only one option to appear in the Big Dance. They had to start an improbable series of victories through the best competition in their conference. It began on Ball State’s home court in the (8) vs. (9) match-up. For reference, the Cardinals of Ball State had an unimposing RPI of 213, a far cry from Georgetown’s 7. Yet, it took a lay-up by Bassett, with under 30 seconds to play, to send the game to overtime. Bassett finished with 25 points in the extra-time affair. Ohio: 85, Ball State: 77.

After surviving that contest, they were rewarded by playing the MAC regular-season champion, Kent State Golden Flashes, in the quarterfinals. The Bobcats rolled to a 17-point victory, with 38 points coming from their leader. I am too embarrassed by the Kent performance to comment further.

In the MAC semifinals, Ohio was once again paired with a heavy favorite. Miami sought to contain Bassett with a slow-down half-court game. They succeeded in limiting the Bobcats to just 54 points, shooting 38% from the field. Only four players for Ohio scored in the game. The trouble for the Red Hawks was that 28 of those points came from Bassett and 18 were poured in by DeVaughn Washington. Miami also underestimated what Ohio’s 2-3 zone defense could do to their own point total. The Bobcats prevailed to the MAC Finals with a 54-42 win.

In the finals they had to deny Akron a repeat MAC Tournament Championship. In typical Cinderella fashion, the Bobcats needed overtime. The game had 24 lead changes; the final one coming in the extra five minute period. Late-game free throws by Cooper sealed the win. The MAC Trophy was unexpectedly headed to Athens, Ohio. Like a broken record, Bassett scored 25 points in the 81-75 victory. He was the clear-cut Tournament MVP, averaging 29 points per game.

Former Thad Matta assistant at Ohio State, Coach John Groce has rallied his team in the fading hours of the college basketball clock. It is a shame the MAC Coach of the Year Award is handed out after regular-season play. He overcame an injury-riddled season that also saw a dismissal of one player and a five-game suspension to another. The lineup juggling forced Groce to call upon true freshmen to play beyond their years. Players like Cooper stepped up.

If you think of it, they have been playing the underdog role for the past eleven days. What other tournament team was an underdog in every game in their conference tournament? This is a mental advantage for Ohio. They are veterans of being written off.

For everyone outside the locker room, this run through the conference tournament was enough of an accomplishment to fall back on. Ohio should have been satisfied with just playing in the NCAA Tournament. And it is not like they had any chance of winning. They had to scratch and claw just to win a mid-major bid and (14) seed. Georgetown was one defensive stop away from winning the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden. They were as hot of a team as anyone in the country during the week prior to the NCAA Tournament. In hindsight, maybe no one was playing as refined a game of basketball as Ohio.

I had predicted that Ohio would lose in the First Round, as did most of the country. I did say that Bassett would still get his 25 points, though. He did me seven points better.

The Group of Death, the Midwest Region, is no less scary now that Georgetown has been knocked on. The face of Death has simply changed forms; it now looks like an Ohio Bobcat.

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