Updated Mon, Mar 18, 2013 7:09 pm
The morning after Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament snubs can be rather gloomy. There’s no big dance this year. There’s no magical run at a Sweet Sixteen. There are other tournaments, but they’re not as nationally recognized as the big one. It’s not really “March Madness” unless a team’s in the pool of 68.
When the Ohio Bobcats entered the Convocation Center Monday morning, they weren’t there in pursuit of an NCAA Tournament run. That dream had passed when they lost to Akron in the MAC Championship, shooting 1-of-20 from beyond the arc.
No, they woke up early on Monday for a 10 a.m. practice to prepare to face Denver in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday. Ohio had their bags packed and was set to leave for Colorado a few hours later.
There were hardly any happy faces on the team, partly because of the morning practice, some still remembering the Akron loss, and the rain outside certainly dampened the mood on campus.
But most of all, it was the NIT. For teams that have high expectations heading into the season, the NIT is a disappointment, and that remained true for the Bobcats. There are some players, like point guard D.J. Cooper, who took the Akron loss as motivation to get to Madison Square Garden, the location of the NIT semifinals.
Others are still feeling the hangover effect of leaving MAC play with a loss, and Coach Jim Christian understood that, but he ultimately wants his team to find it in themselves to not go out of college basketball the same way.
“I hope they're ready to play,” Christian said. “I know our team didn't want to play the way they did in the last 10 minutes of the game, so I'd hate to see those guys want to go out any other way than fighting for it.”
Particularly, coach is talking about his five seniors that have built a legacy as one of the greatest senior classes to ever come through the Ohio basketball program. They have the most wins in school history, three wins in two NCAA Tournament appearances, and one of the greatest players in Ohio history in Cooper.
How have they moved on from the Akron loss? Cooper was quick to apologize to his teammates in the press conference, saying there was no excuse for the way he performed. Immediately, there was desire to be in the NIT, and he wanted to win it. For Cooper, he wanted the next best thing.
Others were having a more difficult time, especially Reggie Keely, whose answers were short in the postgame press conference.
“It’s a real disappointment. We came out here to win a championship, and we didn’t get the job done,” Keely said. “We came to cement a legacy and we couldn’t get it done.”
Offutt was extremely upset Monday morning, considering this is the first time in his collegiate career that he’s been on a roster that won’t make an NCAA Tournament appearance.
His answers were also brief, especially how he felt with receiving the NIT bid.
“Not really good, to be honest,” Offutt said. “I don't really feel like playing, but somehow I'm going to find a way.”
He also mentioned how he isn’t excited to fly out to Denver to play in the high altitudes, which Christian said will play a role in how he handles his lineup.
Offutt, considered the emotional leader of the team, wasn’t necessarily ready to give a motivational speech Monday, especially after the loss. He expressed how the team would finish strong, though, including himself. Offutt has shown time and time again throughout the season his willingness to play hard no matter the circumstances.
“I'll be ready to play,” Offutt said. “I'll be ready to play, but it's just something I'm going to have to fight through."
As for Christian, he understands players with Offutt’s perspective, as it’s not a team’s goal to be in the NIT, or the “second fiddle to the NCAA Tournament” as Offutt described it. But that doesn’t mean Ohio shouldn’t be thankful for the opportunity.
“If we're not happy being in the NIT, we're arrogant. Seriously,” Christian said. “Obviously, everybody wants to play in the NCAA Tournament, but it's arrogance to think that you're in something that's beneath you.”
The Ohio coach believes anybody should feel respected to play in the NIT, including reigning National Champion Kentucky, who has to travel to Robert Morris for their first round game.
Christian wants his players to play hard in the upcoming tournament for the love of the game. And this team has always enjoyed it.
Before the MAC Tournament, Jon Smith went on and on about how he plays the game of basketball for the love, “You just appreciate every day you get a chance to hoop. It’s just fun. At the end of the day, we have a goal and we’re trying to do the best we can. We’re trying to win games.”
That’s the mindset Christian is reaching for.
“If you're a basketball player and you love to play basketball, what difference does it make? Be thankful that you're playing. Be thankful that you're playing in a postseason tournament that's relevant. That has great history and that you're still playing basketball,” Christian said. “A lot of teams put the balls away for the year. If you love to play, that's not an issue. If you're playing for anything else, if you have other agendas, then that's just arrogance.”
Christian wants them strive to leave their legacy untarnished as one of the best basketball teams to ever play in Ohio history. He sees it in his players. Now it’s just up to the players to see it in themselves.