THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

So far, Ohio’s long-range plan has been a hit

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 20, 2010

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PROVIDENCE — When Ohio University was through abusing Georgetown there was really only one pertinent question.

How did these guys go 7-9 in their conference?

The Bobcats are doing what so many dream of. After enduring various ups and downs during the course of a season that began with an easy exhibition victory over NAIA school Taylor in the middle of the World Series (Oct. 30), they entered the NCAA Tournament playing their best basketball. And then just to emphasize the point, they played their absolute best game of the season Thursday night, leading for all but 53 seconds of a 97-83 conquest of Big East rep Georgetown.

Now No. 14 seeds have beaten threes before. But it’s usually a close game requiring a big, late-game shot, or some legend-making dramatic act. This, however, was a totally dominating performance in which the Hoyas looked confused and outclassed.

Can the Bobcats possibly replicate that performance against Tennessee this afternoon?

It’s doubtful, but, hey, it’s tournament time and you never know.

“Any time we’re shooting like that,’’ said Ohio guard Armon Bassett, “we can play with a lot of teams.’’

By “like that’’ he would be referring to his 32-point game that featured a 5-for-10 performance on 3-pointers, or the display of Bobcats point guard D.J. Cooper, whose 23 points included hitting 5 for 8 from behind the arc, or the 3-for-4 3-point shooting of Indiana-bred Tommy Freeman.

But this was more than just a triumph of long-range shooting. The Mid-American Conference guys outplayed Georgetown in both the thinking and hustle parts of the game. Ready for the ultimate sports cliché? They seemed to want the game more.

“I was expecting them to come out with more energy,’’ said Bassett.

Still, what are the Bobcats doing here? Only Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Houston have more losses (15) among tourney teams than Ohio, whose victory over Georgetown made them 22-14.

Second-year coach John Groce, a longtime acolyte of Ohio State mentor Thad Matta, offered a partial explanation. “I think I coached six different teams this year,’’ he said.

He threw one kid off the team. He lost sophomore guard Steve Coleman, whom some thought was the team’s best player, to a season-ending knee injury after just 10 games. And he had to endure the growing pains of Cooper, a cocky freshman from Chicago.

“He’d be the first to tell you there were some times back in January when we were involved in some close games where he had the ball in his hands late in the game and it didn’t quite go our way,’’ Groce said. “We’ve been willing to ride with him. I hung by him during those times and said, ‘Hey, D.J. you’re our guy.’ ’’

Bassett’s circuitous route to Athens, Ohio, came via Bloomington, Ind., and Birmingham (UAB). He was a third-team All Big Ten selection as a sophomore at IU before becoming enmeshed in the Kelvin Sampson telephone mess. He left for UAB under a cloud, but his time there was short because he wished to get closer to his home in Terre Haute because of an ongoing family medical situation. It just so happened that Groce, one of those demon recruiters (the entire Ohio State team is thanks to him), has known Bassett and his mother since the young man was 13 years old. So he had something of a competitive advantage when Bassett was back on the open market.

Anyway, this is a serious big-time backcourt. The 6-foot-2-inch Bassett can obviously stroke it — he’s averaging 31.6 points in his five games since the MAC tournament began — while the scrawny Cooper is a box score filler of the first order.

“He’s somewhere around six rebounds a game,’’ said Groce. “He’s somewhere around six or seven assists a game. He’s in the top 15 in the country in steals per game. He’s in the top 15 in the country in assists. He’s averaging in double figures [13.1 points]. I don’t know. You could say to me there are four other freshmen point guards that have those type of numbers. I believe you. I can’t believe there’s many.’’

The numbers aside, the spunky southpaw has a classic Chicago swagger. When a lead over Georgetown that had been as big as 16 got down to 7, Cooper calmly stuck a 3-pointer in their face and then looked over to the Bobcat fans as if to say, “I have things under control.’’

A possession or two later he sauntered to the hoop. Soon the lead was back in dubs. He had simply taken over the game.

I’ll be honest. The MAC has always intrigued me, in both football and basketball. It’s a classic mid-major league, featuring Midwestern schools whose rosters are often stocked with fallen-between-the-cracks kids who love showing off when given a chance. Sometimes schools get lucky just hiring the right coach. Neither Bassett nor Cooper would be a Bobcat if Groce were not the coach.

Cooper spurned the likes of Baylor and Cal to play at Ohio.

“It was just the opportunity I had and knowing that Coach Groce is a good coach,’’ he said. “And I knew he put a lot of confidence in me and trust in me. I was going to be willing to make mistakes without getting yanked out of the game. Just mainly that.’’

But the road to the round of 32 was tough. There was a four-game losing streak to begin conference play. There was an OT loss and a double-OT loss. The Bobcats entered the MAC tourney as the ninth seed, then found themselves trailing Kent State by 10 with about eight minutes to play in the opening game. And here they are, preparing to play Tennessee, a dangerous Southeastern Conference squad that has beaten Kansas and Kentucky.

They can’t say it, but I will. Ohio is playing today with lots of house money. It ought to be interesting.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.