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Overlooked Ohio steadies itself in time for Sweet 16 jaunt

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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John Groce's tunnel-vision hadn't allowed him to glance at the bracket, not once since he heard Ohio University's name called on Selection Sunday. So when he took a gander this past weekend after the Bobcats advanced to the Sweet 16, he was shocked. Ohio U. was the lone true mid-major remaining and the lowest-remaining seed at No. 13.

That's not to say Groce, though, is surprised this team has had success. This isn't like his rookie year in Athens, when he took a team that went 7-9 in the MAC and pulled the upset over Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA tourney.

"It's completely different than it was two years ago," Groce said. "We got hot at the right time then."

This team, despite being picked in the middle of the MAC's East Division before the season, has been consistent most of the season. The Bobcats began the season at 12-1 with the lone loss a close call at Louisville. That's when Groce and star guard D.J. Cooper had visions of being in the at-large conversation come March. However, losses to Robert Morris and at Bowling Green ended the at-large chatter.

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On my drive from Huntington, W.Va., to Columbus, Ohio, I decided to take the scenic route and check out the Ohio University campus. Cooper gave me the tour and we grabbed lunch at Broney's -- a local joint in Athens. He was visibly upset with his recent play, specifically his shooting woes -- and the team's two-game slide. But Cooper also was bright enough to understand that the regular-season isn't all that important to teams like Ohio.

You see, Cooper was a freshman point guard on that team a couple years ago that was mediocre during the regular-season, caught fire and won the league tourney and then knocked off the Hoyas.

"I know it better than anyone," Cooper said during our visit. "But we need to improve and get back on track before the conference tournament."

Ohio wound up finishing a solid 11-5 in league play -- which trailed both Akron and Buffalo in the East Division. But Cooper and the Bobcats reeled off three consecutive wins over Toledo, Buffalo and Akron to go dancing again.

Groce, before this season, was best known for being the lead recruiter at Ohio State when the Buckeyes landed Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook. Now, in only his fourth season at Ohio, Groce already has amassed three NCAA tournament victories -- and it might have been more if not for losing three starters in the offseason following the victory against Georgetown.

That was when star guard Armon Bassett, who nearly took down the Hoyas by himself, left school early after being arrested for assaulting a doorman. Then a month before the start of the season, Steven Coleman bolted to pursue a rap career. The final blow came a day before practice was set to begin -- Clark Kellogg's son, Alex, quit the team.

"We got off to a rough start," Groce said.

Ohio was 8-11 at one point, but finished strong enough to earn a postseason bid to the CIT -- also known as the CollegeInsider.com.

"It wasn't easy losing three guys like that, but it ended up being a key reason why we were successful this year," Groce said.

Groce was forced to go with the youth movement last season, with a trio of freshmen and three more sophomores within the top eight of his rotation. Cooper emerged as the star, but this is a team that wins with defense and its depth.

"We've been pretty consistent this year," Groce said. "This is by far the best team I've had."

But Groce and the Bobcats will have its work cut it for them in the Sweet 16, whether North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall -- who has a fractured wrist -- suits up or not.

"We're going to prepare like he's playing, but we'll have a couple adjustments in case he doesn't play," Groce said. "The bottom line, whether he plays or not, is that you have to get back in transition and you have to keep them off the glass. That's easier said than done."

Ohio University, which last advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1964, has found its way back onto the basketball map. Its moment of glory was short-lived two years ago because the Bobcats wound up losing to Tennessee in the second round only 48 hours after the upset over Georgetown. Now Cooper and his teammates are soaking up the attention all week leading up to this matchup opposite the powerful Tar Heels.

When I asked Cooper back in mid-January what Ohio U. was best-known for, besides boasting Gary "The Shaq of the MAC" Trent back in the mid-1990s, he smiled.

"We're the No. 1 party school in the country," he said.

They must be partying hard this week in Athens.

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