The Bobcats must regroup if they want to duplicate last season's success
The Ohio Bobcats are coming off a program record 29 wins and a Sweet Sixteen appearance. They were ranked 25th in the final ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.
Yet, their beloved coach, who guided them to two MAC Championships and three NCAA Tournament wins in three years, is gone. John Groce left for Illinois and was replaced by Jim Christian, former TCU and Kent State head coach.
Christian led Kent State (2002-2008) to six straight 20 win seasons, compiling a 137-59 record, two MAC Tournament Championships and two MAC Coach of the Year awards. His .699 winning percentage is the best in conference history. Can he do the same with the Bobcats?
He inherits a veteran-laden squad returning its entire roster led by point guard D.J. Cooper. The Bobcats will be expected to do big things in 2012-2013 and, for the first time, will have to deal with the pressure to win. No longer can Ohio sneak up on teams like they have in years past.
The green and white will have a bullseye on their chest in conference play, with teams gunning for them every night. Instead of being the hunter, they will be the hunted. We'll see how they respond.
This team knows success is earned, not given. They must stay humble and hungry if they want to put together a similar run. Complacency should not be an issue with this deep, experienced roster brimming with talent.
The Bobcats will be 10 deep assuming everyone returns and stays healthy, but they must buy into Christian's system. There is bound to be some growing pains, but you can't over emphasize having guys like Cooper and Walter Offutt around to lead the team. These are guys who have been through the battles and command respect.
If the Bobcats want to keep building their program and put Ohio on the map, they must win consistently.
Here's an early look at what each player currently on the roster must do to improve during the long offseason.
Nick Goff, Junior
His beard is more famous than his game.
David McKinley, Senior
A walk-on and fan favorite, McKinley led the MAC in high-fives last season averaging a staggering 25 per timeout.
Ethan Jacobs, Junior
His height and big body would be an important asset to the team but he did not see significant minutes under Groce (who preferred athletic big men). Always good for a few fouls or to jump around wildly in front of the inbound passer.
Kadeem Green, Sophomore
Green transferred to the green and white from Missouri, arriving on campus last week. His status is unknown at this point but he would have to sit out another year if he were to transfer. ESPN's scouting report from 2010 says the 6'8", 210 pound forward is a supremely athletic big who can score in transition and showed the ability to take defenders off the dribble.
Green could be a huge addition if he can find his niche here. He can practice with the team but won't be eligible to see game action until January 1 (just in time for conference play).
Ricardo Johnson, Junior
He rocks a sweet '90s fade haircut, though more importantly is a tenuous, lockdown defender who competes on every possession. If he can develop some type of an offensive game, he could make huge strides over his final two seasons. Expect him to play more minutes next year.
T.J. Hall, Junior
Hall stepped up in the postseason after struggling mightily during the regular season. Despite his awful shooting, Groce stuck with him and it paid off big time during the MAC Tourney. He is going to have to fight for minutes with the addition of Green. His defense is suspect and the Bobcats have a ton of wing players so he’s going to have to score to stay on the floor.
Stevie “Swag” Taylor, Sophomore
Swag showed signs of being an explosive scorer when he chipped in 10 points off the bench at Louisville in just his fourth collegiate game. He gave Ohio depth at the point, and provided some much needed rest for Cooper in his first season. His energy and upbeat personality made him a fan favorite.
Nonetheless, he must shoot better than 30 percent from 3-point range in his sophomore campaign. He plays too fast at times, which led to him committing avoidable mistakes. But that's what you get with a freshman; he is still learning.
Reggie Keely, Senior
Keely improved by leaps and bounds and was arguably the most improved player in the entire conference (other than Mitchell Watt). He stepped up when Baltic fell off the map (I'll explain later) and gave the team a physical presence and an enforcer down low. His clutch free throw shooting helped the Bobcats hold off Akron in the MAC Championship Game.
He shot 51 percent from the field on the season and developed a drop step from the left side to complement his soft hook in the paint. He missed some bunnies at the rim so he must improve at finishing.
Jon Smith, Junior
Smith held his own against bigger, more talented players and deserves credit. His offensive rebounding early in games was key to Ohio’s ability to get off to such great starts, especially at home.
Strictly a defender, he must get stronger if he wants to retain his starting spot. Ohio suddenly has front court depth so Smith must do what he does best, which is rebounding and hustling.
Ivo Baltic, Senior
Will the real Ivo Baltic please stand up? The nimble 6’8" forward is the wild card going into next season.
Check this out: After notching double digits scoring efforts in 10 straight games from mid-December to mid-January, Baltic never topped 10 points the rest of the season (18 games). His aggressiveness in the post disappeared and he became strictly a jump shooter the rest of the season. This is troubling especially because Baltic was a dominating force at the end of his sophomore season, averaging 15.8 points in the final 13 games.
This year, his shooting percentages dropped across the board: 53 to 46 percent from the field and 78 to 51 percent from the line. His confidence visibly dipped, too. He started passing up opportunities in the post or fading away instead of going strong to the hole.
Was he afraid to get fouled? Was he injured? Whatever it was, Baltic must figure it out, relocate his shot and get tougher inside. He's proven he can score 20 any night and his ability to score inside would open up the floor for the shooters.
Kellogg was on point in the tourney with the help of his three-point goggles
Nick Kellogg, Junior
The undersized shooting guard is special from downtown. Currently, he’s strictly a spot up shooter and solid defender, which is all fine and well. But if he wants to take his game to the next level, he must find a way to get his own shot. Developing a pull up or midrange jumper would complement his outside game and make him even more of a threat.
His entire game relies on others to feed him the ball, most notably Cooper. Just look at the final game of the season. Cooper launched 20 shots, Baltic went 2-10 and Keely and Hall each went 2-7. Kellogg took just five shots (all threes), hitting four of them. That's inexplicable.
Kellogg must create for himself if he wants to become a more complete offensive player. If he doesn't, Swag could steal some of his minutes.
Walter Offutt, Senior
They call him a wolf and with good reason. The transfer from Ohio State brought heart, hustle, toughness and leadership to a team that was in desperate need of all the above. He shot the lights out in the tournament, including a career high 26 points against North Carolina, earning him a spot on the Midwest region All-Tournament Team.
His defense this season was even better. Offutt easily led the team in charges drawn, many of them in crucial situations, and played excellent on the ball defense. All of this helped Ohio become a feisty, tough basketball team, something it lacked in the past under Groce.
“He’s what I call a culture-changer,” said Groce.
I’ve never seen a player drive to the basket with such ferocity and power as Offutt. However, there were times when he over-penetrated and got blocked or charged into a waiting defender.
Developing a floater or pull-up jumper would make his game virtually unstoppable. His 3-point shot improved over the course of the season finishing at a respectable 38 percent but he must get better from the line (71 percent).
D.j. Cooper, Senior
Cooper burst into the record books his freshman year and hasn’t stopped since. A two-time MAC First Team selection, Coop already holds the program record in assists and steals and is among the best in the country at both.
He has ranked in the top 26 in the nation in both categories in each of his three seasons, garnering national recognition as a nominee for the Bob Cousy Award, which goes to the nation’s best point guard. Cooper finished in the “Final 20” out of 69 candidates this season and could be a finalist for the award if he has another outstanding year in 2012-2013.
One of only 13 players to do so this year, he notched his first career triple-double in a win over Portland. His court vision and quick hands allow him to make plays most players simply can't.
He is the ultimate example of a player making his teammates better. He's taken Swag under his wing and taught him the responsibilities of leading a team.
Even with all the accolades, there are still flaws in Cooper’s game. He shot a horrendous 34.8 percent from the field and just 30.7 percent from three, a terrible percentage for someone who took nearly seven treys per game.
I doubt he will have as much freedom next season as he had in Groce’s system and, with the improvement of his teammates, expect him to hoist less threes next season. His historically awful shooting night against Carolina left a bad taste in his mouth and should motivate him to take the next step as he prepares for his senior year and beyond.
He is one of the best guards in the country and his value to the Bobcats is immeasurable. Anyone who says different is delusional.
In Coop We Trust.