Updated Mon, Oct 29, 2012 6:34 pm
With its season starting in just a few weeks, the Ohio Men’s Basketball team is looking to carry on the momentum from last year’s historic season, despite having an almost entirely new coaching staff this year.
The roster that took the No. 13 seed ‘Cats to their first Sweet Sixteen since 1964 and had them one shot away from upsetting a No. 1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels team, has barely changed. All five starters from last year’s team have returned, including seniors D.J. Cooper and Walter Offutt. However, former head coach John Groce left Ohio for the University of Illinois just six days after Ohio’s loss in the Sweet Sixteen. To fill the void left by Groce, the ‘Cats hired TCU head coach Jim Christian.
Christian, who has spent the past four seasons in Fort Worth, Texas, as the head coach of the TCU Horned Frogs where he compiled a record of 56-73 in his four seasons, has previously coached in the MAC at Kent State. There, Coach Christian turned the Golden Flashes into a MAC contender and had them competing in NCAA Tournaments. During the six years Christian was at the helm of the Golden Flashes, the team compiled a 138-58 record while earning two trips to the big dance.
Christian will be looking to recapture that MAC dominance with a team that won the MAC Tournament last season. However, it almost always poses a potential problem when a team gets an all new staff. Sometimes players leave, recruits de-commit and the team dynamics can change entirely. But for the ‘Cats, who won the most games in program history a season ago, the transition seems to be going smooth.
Assistant Coach Aaron Fuss, the only remaining member of an Ohio coaching staff that led the team to a 29-8 record last season and a MAC Tournament championship, doesn’t think the change will have a big effect on the team.
“It's really been kind of a testament to just the relationships that Coach Christian and everyone else on the staff has worked to build with the players you know since they got here,” said Fuss. “Everyone has done a great job of really connecting with the guys and at the same time the players here are just tremendous guys and they've been very accepting to coaching, very accepting to really whatever we're trying to get them to do.”
“Coach Groce and Coach Christian come from the same coaching tree so it's not much (of a) difference besides some of the terminology,” said senior point guard D.J. Cooper.
Christian feels the real keys to a smooth transition are the players.
“A lot of it is I've put a lot of emphasis on the leadership that they have. You know that hasn't changed. It doesn't make a difference who is standing on the sideline, they have certain things that they want to accomplish individually and collectively and that's never changed.”
Not satisfied with the way their season ended last year, these ‘Cats want more. Being able to return almost every member of a Sweet Sixteen team is a rare feat that has put the Bobcats in a great position to improve upon last year’s campaign. Expectations are high for the team, as many experts have picked Ohio as preseason favorites to win the MAC. Yahoo! Sports named D.J. Cooper to its preseason MAC First-Team selections and picked him as the preseason MAC Player of the Year. Walter Offutt also received first-team honors from Yahoo! Sports.
New Head Coach Jim Christian is expected by many to be the MAC Coach of the year, thanks in part to his past dominance of the conference as well as his taking over a relatively unchanged Sweet-Sixteen team.
The preseason accolades and expectations can be a lot of pressure for a team with an all new coaching staff and a team that only won the MAC Tournament by one point over regular season conference champion Akron.
“We kind of wanted that target on our back to show that we can defend it, show that we're capable of being really good and staying really good,” junior guard Nick Kellogg said of the pressure from media expectations.
When asked if the team is still hungry despite the attention, Kellogg responded emphatically.
“Absolutely. We want to get that regular season title. You know every game is important, every single one. When conference time roles around hopefully we'll be ready to take it seriously and get a regular season championship,” Kellogg said.
Kellogg isn’t alone in his thoughts on the attention.
“It’s not affecting (us) at all,” said Cooper. “We're coming out every day in practice balling hard against each other, competing. You know everybody is still hungry and we're looking for bigger things this year so it's not making us satisfied or anything.”
That’s good news for Christian who is determined to get Ohio back to the NCAA Tournament and win the MAC outright.
“I'd like to think what they're trying to play for is a lot bigger than that,” Christian said when asked if he thinks the attention is affecting the team. “It's just every day you've got to try to do what you can to get better. That's what it comes down to. What happens when a team has success and it's a good thing is they get noticed. They get recognized so it makes them want to have more success.”
With the season just 11 days away, the team is getting ready for what looks like it could be another historic season. The all-time season ticket sales record for Ohio Basketball has already been broken according to OhioBobcats.com. Many think the season opener against Portland at home on November 10th could be a sellout, with over 13,000 people expected to attend the game.
“We're excited, you know that we got the support. But we're going to play regardless of if we got one fan or 10,000 fans out there so, we're looking forward to the challenge,” Cooper said.
There’s no denying that the buzz around the team is at an all-time high. But not everybody has love for the ‘Cats. Despite their success last year and finishing in the final USA Today Poll for last season at No. 25, they didn’t receive a single vote for the initial poll of the 2012-13 season. They are ranked No. 38 in the first AP Poll for the season, something that is sure to make this team hungry to go out and reprove themselves.
“I think it's just kind of speculation and really no one cares. It's only an issue now because it just came out. A month from now it won't be an issue, two months from now it definitely won't be an issue. And by March it won't be an issue so, I mean again it doesn't mean anything,” Christian said.
“Again I think if you have a basketball program that can compete and win championships year in and year out then you've got one heck of a basketball program. In a tough league, in a league that a lot of different programs have taken that turn, you know. Kent had it for a while; Akron had it for a while. Ohio's now getting their chance to do things.
I think we've got a great culture, a culture of winning and a culture of guy's getting better that want to come to work, and there's a great attitude amongst the team. If you continue that then you've got a great program. That's really what you want,” Christian said.
With out of conference games on the road against schools like Memphis and Oklahoma, a yet to be announced opponent in the ESPN BracketBusters tournament in February and a tough conference schedule, the ‘Cats still have to prove that they deserve the preseason hype. This team is well aware of that.
“To be honest you've just got to take it one game at a time. One day at a time, one practice at a time. You know just live in the moment, just do your best to get better each and every day,” Kellogg said.
Ohio plays its first exhibition game Saturday at 2 p.m. vs. Mercyhurst.