Updated Sun, Mar 17, 2013 3:27 pm
Ohio coach Jim Christian walked into the press conference room with two of his senior leaders, D.J. Cooper and Reggie Keely, ready to relay their thoughts following Saturday night’s 65-46 loss to Akron in the Mid-American Conference Championship.
Christian, wearing a blue, button-downed shirt with the top button undone, sat down on the far end, Cooper to his left, and Keely one more over. Neither player was happy with the way their legacy had ended in the MAC Tournament. Christian wasn’t either, as he began the press conference with his opening statement.
“First half, we shot 48 percent. Guarded really, really well. Played unbelievably hard,” Christian said.
Then Christian’s emotions changed just as the Bobcats’ fortunes did in the second half. His right hand clinched, his eyes shut, and he went on to say, “Second half, we played hard. And just couldn’t make a shot.”
The media didn’t buy it. They insisted that Akron had to do something differently in the second half to change Ohio’s approach. So they asked Cooper if he saw anything different in the Akron game plan.
“I knew Zeke (Marshall) and (Demetrius) Treadwell and the rest of the big guys were going to be guarding me the whole game,” Cooper said. “I mean, you know, no excuse. It’s just one of those games where the ball didn’t fall how it usually does.”
The questions continued to pour in. What happened in the second half? What was the difference? Did they see Treadwell guarding Cooper that much, though?
The Ohio guard continued to sound like a broken record, “No, we knew everything they were going to do. We knew what they were going to do. They knew what we’re going to do like I said yesterday. It’s just they executed it. They made a few more plays at the end and just throughout the game. They made play after play. We got stops but just couldn’t get it going on the offensive end.”
Cooper was speaking the truth when he said he was prepared for Treadwell guarding him. The Akron forward did in fact guard Cooper the last time the two matched up in the Convocation Center. He also wasn’t lying when he said that they didn’t really affect him. Cooper did score 26 points against Treadwell last game.
However, in the MAC Championship, the media just wouldn’t accept that the shots simply didn’t fall. The Bobcats either lost because Treadwell stopped the MAC Player of the Year or Akron coach Keith Dambrot was better prepared than Christian.
The blame game is an easy one to get involved with, especially on Twitter. Fans, disappointed by the high expectations of this season, began to blame Christian for Ohio’s failure to make another magical Sweet Sixteen run.
There’s a reason Christian has been recognized by several as one of the greatest coaches in MAC history. There’s a reason he has over 200 wins in his career.
Sure, he won’t end up taking Ohio to the Sweet Sixteen like John Groce did last season, but in his first year as the coach of the Bobcats, he has already done some things Groce never did in his four years.
No team in Ohio basketball history finished with a better record than 14-2 in a 16-game conference season. Christian did that in his first year.
As widely proclaimed Groce was for leading Ohio to two MAC Tournament titles, he never won or shared a MAC Regular Season Championship. Christian did that as well.
Mixing and matching a new coach and system with a previously successful program is one of the most difficult things to do in sports. Christian has done a tremendous job with a team that will likely receive an NIT bid tonight.
Anyone can read about the awards Christian has won and the numbers he’s accomplished, but few can watch his actions during games and determine his thought process.
Christian began to understand this team from the beginning of the season in November against St. Bonaventure. This one, for the most part, was Ohio’s first encounter with a strong opposition.
With 9:47 left in the game, the Bonnies had narrowed Ohio’s 11-point lead to five. Cooper was trying to do too much and the momentum belonged to St. Bonaventure. In a little over a minute, the Ohio guard had committed two fouls, one turnover and shot an outrageously deep three-pointer, deep for Cooper’s standards.
By that time, St. Bonaventure had retaken the lead. Christian, seeing his point guard struggle, took him out to relax him for the closing minutes. An average fan would cringe at the fact Christian took his star player out immediately after Ohio had just blown the lead, not knowing that it was the star player that needed to readjust.
It was this trust that Christian had built in his bench players from the early going that led him to take a star player out when they weren’t playing well.
That St. Bonaventure game went down to the wire. Christian drew up a beautifully executed play to find Jon Smith backdoor for a two-handed slam, and Cooper hit a clutch three the next possession to bring Ohio to 6-0 on the season.
That was St. Bonaventure. At home. What about a team that can truly challenge the Bobcats?
Kent State plays one of the deadliest full court presses in the entire conference. It’s a full-court trap, but they wait to pounce at the right moment. When an inexperienced guard believes he has it beat, that’s when they trap. It happened to Buffalo’s Jarryn Skeete several times in the quarterfinal game of the MAC Tournament.
The Bobcats faced a great amount of foul trouble in the first half when they travelled to Kent State on Jan. 26. Both Walter Offutt and Cooper had two fouls and Christian had to trust in his young point guard Stevie Taylor to handle the offense.
Rob Senderoff, Kent State’s coach, isn’t dumb. He recognized how Ohio was at a disadvantage and had his team enter a full-court press following a media timeout.
Taylor and Travis Wilkins were able to break the press until they made it to the half court line when Taylor took off to run the offensive set. Wilkins, still trying to break the press, got stuck in the corner and had to call a timeout.
Again, some might blame Wilkins for picking up his dribble and Christian for keeping him in the game, but the right decision was made when Christian put Cooper back into the game not for Wilkins, as most fans would suspect, but for Taylor. The next points scored for either team happened to leave Wilkins’ hands, landing perfectly in the net.
Ohio went on to win, 69-68, with Cooper staying out of foul trouble and shining late in the game.
Now the common response is Christian coaches well just in the regular season, but the MAC Tournament is a completely different animal. It’s win or go home.
True, the MAC Tournament adds an enormous amount of pressure to a team and coach, and Christian’s ability to recognize and put his team in the best situations shined once again in this year’s MAC Tournament.
Basketball is a game of runs. Some players step up, others struggle. It’s about finding the right formula and matchups. Christian has done a tremendous job all season putting the parts together in the starting lineup and on the bench.
When Western Michigan narrowed a 17-point halftime deficit to just two points, Christian went to the always-energized Stevie Taylor on his bench.
Taylor, who often subs in at point guard, wasn’t going in for Cooper this time, as the senior had been playing great. 27 seconds before Taylor entered the game, Cooper boosted Ohio’s lead back up to five on a deep three pointer in front of Ohio’s bench.
There’s no way he was coming out. No, instead Taylor was going to team up with Cooper to form a two point guard system Christian had utilized a couple times this season, especially against teams with smaller guards. And it worked. Immediately.
Just 25 seconds into the game, Taylor recorded a steal and gave Ohio a possession on the other end. His transition layup was blocked, but Offutt was able to get the offensive rebound and was fouled. In the ensuing possession, Offutt hit a three-pointer to boost Ohio’s lead to eight. The Bobcats, of course, went on to defeat Western Michigan.
Then came Saturday night’s game. The one for all the marbles.
Some say Akron adjusted at halftime. Others say Christian didn’t put in the right group at certain points to win the game. But here’s the thing, Akron didn’t adjust anything in their sets or lineups from the first to second half. Christian tried several different options, with movements all around the bench with Ricardo Johnson, Wilkins, Ivo Baltic, Jon Smith, and Taylor, but when the shots don’t fall, they simply don’t fall.
“Sometimes you just can’t explain it. There’s no schematic thing. There’s no adjustment,” Christian said. “We had the same looks we had in the second half that we had in the first half, just didn’t finish plays.”
The inside presence of Marshall and Treadwell hurt Ohio defensively. When the Bobcat’s big man Smith picked up five fouls in 10 minutes it made Christian’s job a lot more difficult. Baltic had a few defensive stands, but not nearly enough. Keely held his own, but no one truly has the defensive energy presence on the Bobcats like Smith.
No matter what group of players he put out on the court, nothing was going to change the fact Ohio shot a season-low 1-of-20 from three, a day after going a season-best 7-of-9 in one half. They went 8:53 without a field goal made. That’s not coaching. That’s simply shots not falling. Unfortunately for the Bobcats, that came on the biggest stage, and they had to accept it.
Now they must move forward. Reporters asked Christian after the game if he thinks he could motivate his players to continue playing after a tough loss, especially in a possible NIT Tournament.
“I hope so. If we’re lucky enough to get into the NIT, that’s a hell of a deal to get into,” Christian responded. “We’re 24-9. Like I told them, I’m proud of them to get to this point. It’s unfortunate how it ended up in the last 14 minutes of the game or however long it was.”
Motivation shouldn’t be an issue for Christian, who’s coaching one of the most motivated squads in Ohio history. Cooper was ready for the NIT in the press conference, expressing desires to reach Madison Square Garden.
If the Bobcats reach Madison Square Garden, then they should be proud. That’s an accomplishment.
Even if they don’t, they should be proud of what this senior class has accomplished. Be proud of how they battled Akron for three games this season, but when it mattered the most, their shots simply didn’t fall. Be proud that their new coach came in and adjusted to make the most of the system.
Cooper would not have been the MAC Player of the Year had he not bought what Christian was saying all season long.
Next season, Ohio loses Cooper, Offutt, Keely, Baltic, and David McKinley. It’ll be a completely different group out there. Expectations will be lowered, but there’s still a solid core returning for the Bobcats.
And with a new recruiting class coming in, one that will favor Christian’s playing style more, there’s always the chance that Ohio will shatter the expectations and shock the nation next season.
Ohio always performs better when the expectations are low. Whether it was when Cooper was a freshman or they went to the Sweet Sixteen as a 13-seed last season, they were the underdogs.
All it takes is trust. All four years, Ohio fans put their trust in Coop.
In his final season, Cooper put his trust in Christian.
It’s time for everyone else to do the same.