By Jeff Goodman
No team has managed to fly under-the-radar more than the Ohio Bobcats. Ohio has just one loss, a close one at Louisville.
The 11 victories? Six have come in the form of true road games, including wins at Northern Iowa, Marshall and Oakland. Not bad for a program that was expected to fall into the abyss after the departure of Armon Bassett, Steven Coleman and Alex Kellogg shortly after the NCAA tournament first-round upset over Georgetown a few years ago.
Bassett, a one-time Indiana guard, got into off-court trouble and put his name in for the NBA Draft. Coleman took a shot at a rap career and Kellogg gave up basketball.
"We lost three starters in five months," Ohio coach John Groce said.
Therefore, the Bobcats coach had no option but to go with the youth movement and after struggling to an 8-11 mark out of the gates, Ohio finished strong, winning 12 of its last 17 and earning a postseason trip to the CBI. But no one -- including Groce -- could have predicted this year's near-flawless start. Ohio was picked to finish third in the MAC. In its division.
However, point guard D.J. Cooper (right) continues to mature and has no shortage of help -- from well-traveled wing Walter Offutt, forwards Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely and a team that Groce said is his deepest since arriving in Athens. Clark Kellogg's other son, Nick, as well as Saint Louis transfer Jon Smith and freshman Stevie Taylor have all been solid and made key contributions.
"We play 10 guys every night," Groce said. "They all play before the 10-minute mark of the first half. We're deeper, they play harder and this is the most cohesive team I've had."
It's also a team that doesn't have a single senior on its roster. Cooper, Baltic and Keely are juniors and were on the team that knocked off Georgetown two seasons ago. Offutt, who began his career at Ohio State, has two years with Groce after leaving Columbus after just a few games as a freshman, then going to Wright State for a brief stint before arriving at Ohio.
"He's athletic, explosive and can rebound and score," Groce said. "He's something we really needed on this team."
Cooper's scoring has dipped, but his overall floor game - and mental makeup - have improved, according to Groce. In fact, the entire team has begun to learn to prepare in an identical manner whether the opponent is Louisville or the sister's of the poor.
"I like the direction we're headed," Groce said. "But we have to keep getting better."
Maybe then people will begin to take notice.
Photo: US PRESSWIRE