NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A year ago, it was VCU.
Maybe it’s Ohio University that will captivate the college basketball world in this year’s NCAA tournament.
The No. 13 seed Bobcats are off to a rousing start and insist there’s a lot more left after spurting past South Florida 62-56 on Sunday night at Bridgestone Arena to reach their first Sweet 16 in modern tournament history.
In 1964, Ohio played in the Mideast Regional final, but that was when there were just 25 teams in the field.
The Bobcats entered this tournament as an afterthought for many. But after taking down a Big Ten team (Michigan) and a Big East team (USF) this weekend in Nashville, they head to St. Louis on Friday to face No. 1-seed North Carolina.
Nobody in green’s blinking, either. “This is where we expected to be, and nobody on this team is satisfied. I can promise you that,” said Ohio junior guard Walter Offutt, who led the Bobcats with 21 points and was 4-of-4 from 3-point range.
“I know a lot of people look at the seeds and see the bigger conference teams, and when somebody like us knocks one of those teams off, they look at it as an upset. We’re where we thought we’d be.”
The matchup with the Tar Heels just got a lot more compelling, too, with the news that North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall fractured his right wrist Sunday against Creighton. Marshall’s status for the rest of the tournament is unknown.
Ohio junior point guard D.J. Cooper has had his way with the first two point guards he’s faced in the NCAA tournament, and the Tar Heels don’t have an abundance of depth in the backcourt.
“My mentality is going to be the same regardless of who it is or who we’re playing against,” said Cooper, who had 19 points, seven assists and six rebounds against USF after pumping in 21 points two nights earlier in the win over Michigan. “I’m sorry to hear that [about] a good player getting hurt, but we’re going to come compete regardless of who it is.”
The Bobcats (29-7) have relied on their defense all season. They were forcing nearly 18 turnovers per game coming into the tournament.
And when they couldn’t buy a basket in the first half Sunday, it was their defense that kept them in the game.
Coach John Groce said his team displayed an “extraordinary toughness” in being able to outlast the bigger, bulkier Bulls, who don’t give up anything easy.
But the Bobcats hung around and then got hot from 3-point range. They were 9-of-18 in the game, and Nick Kellogg joined Offutt in hitting some huge 3-pointers down the stretch. And even though Ivo Baltic only made one field goal the entire game, it was clutch.
His jumper, with his foot on the 3-point line, went down with two seconds left on the shot clock and gave Ohio an eight-point lead with 2:35 to play.
Cooper’s floater to beat the shot-clock buzzer after spinning around USF’s Ron Anderson Jr. came about a minute later and was the dagger for the Bulls, who were playing their third game in five days.
“We’ve seen D.J. do that all season long,” Offutt said. “He loves being in that situation, but the good thing about this team is that we have a lot of those guys.”
Offutt, who transferred to Ohio from Ohio State, has been as valuable as anybody for the Bobcats.
In fact, Groce called Offutt a “culture-changer” in terms of what he’s brought to the Ohio program.
“He’s as good as it gets with all the intangibles, and he’s a productive player as well,” Groce said. “He’s an unbelievable ambassador for our university and how he conducts himself, and he’s really affected our program at a high level and injected it with a lot of toughness.
“It’s impossible for me to thank him enough for what he brings to our program. I’ll never be able to repay him.”
Maybe they’ll be able to thank each other with a win over the Tar Heels.