Ohio University weathers tumultuous season to reach NCAA tournament
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
From office water coolers to TV analysts' studios, precious few NCAA tournament prognosticators are giving 14th-seeded Ohio University much chance in its first-round game against No. 3 seed Georgetown on Thursday in Providence, R.I.
The Bobcats, after all, compiled an undistinguished 7-9 record in Mid-American Conference play and never would have earned a trip to the NCAA tournament had it not been for their surprising run to the league's tournament title.
But there is far more big-game experience among the Bobcats than a cursory glance at their résumé suggests.
Ohio Coach John Groce (pronounced "Gross") was on Thad Matta's staff when Ohio State took on Georgetown in back-to-back NCAA tournaments. The Buckeyes suffered a second-round loss to the Hoyas in 2006, then ousted Georgetown in the 2007 Final Four.
Ohio shooting guard Armon Bassett is making his third trip to the NCAA tournament, having experienced March Madness as an underclassman at Indiana before being dismissed from the Hoosiers in the shakeup that followed Kelvin Sampson's tumultuous tenure.
And despite a season riddled with turmoil, Groce's Bobcats are playing their best basketball as the postseason gets underway in earnest.
The Hoyas (23-10) can claim the same, having endured their own setbacks: The high-ankle sprain that slowed the development of freshman Jerrelle Benimon; junior forward Nikita Mescheriakov's midseason decision to transfer; a stretch of lackluster losses; and leading scorer Austin Freeman's late-season diagnosis of diabetes.
Yet all of that pales in comparison to the turmoil at Ohio (21-14).
Before the season's start, three players (Bassett among them) were suspended for violating team rules. Starting guard Steven Coleman broke his shooting hand in December and was lost for the rest of season. And freshman guard Jay Kinney was kicked off the team in February after pleading guilty to marijuana possession.
According to Groce, the Bobcats have emerged stronger for it.
"Through all that adversity we were dealing with, we continued to work every day and kept getting better," said Groce, 38, in his second year at Ohio. "I felt like our chemistry was really improving. I could see us starting to compete better, and our execution was better. Guys were understanding and playing their roles at a higher level late in the regular season. I felt going into the tournament that we could play with, and beat, anybody."