Though the Bobcats’ magical season ended Friday night, their final effort showed the country they can hang with the best in the business.
Ohio, which returns 100 percent of its minutes next year, advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 48 years and won the hearts of underdogs everywhere when it came within a point of upsetting top-seeded North Carolina to advance to the Elite Eight.
The No. 13 seed Bobcats (29-8) defeated No. 4 Michigan and No. 12 South Florida to advance past the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament, dramatically increasing the program’s exposure.
The team then had five days to prepare for the heavily favored Tar Heels.
And after trailing by as many as 15 points in the first half Friday, Ohio rallied and led North Carolina by four points with less than four minutes to play. But the Tar Heels tied the game and took control in overtime.
Despite the initial pain of losing a game with a win well within reach, coach John Groce praised his team for what it had accomplished during a record-setting season.
“I think these kids certainly made (the fans) proud of the way that they played with their effort and their toughness and their togetherness throughout the course of the season,” he said.
The Bobcats shattered the program record for wins in the season and tied for the lowest loss total in the past 41 seasons. The 2001–02 Kent State squad is the only Mid-American Conference school to finish with more wins than Ohio did this season.
The team also became the first 13 seed to advance to the Sweet 16 since Bradley in 2006. Ohio was just a point away from becoming the lowest seed ever to reach the Elite Eight and the first seed 12th or lower to beat a top-seeded opponent.
“It’s just a humbling experience to know that we came together as a group and were able to achieve what we did,” said junior guard Walter Offutt, who scored a game-high 26 points against North Carolina. “Obviously, we’re not happy with this loss, but we’re fortunate to win at least two games in the NCAA tournament and advance into the Sweet 16.”
Now the Bobcats will have some time to unwind and reflect on the season before they begin preparations for next year. The 2011–12 Ohio squad was the first in team history to have three separate six-game winning streaks during one season. D.J. Cooper broke the school’s career assists and steals record while leading the team in scoring for the second straight year.
Offutt and sophomore forward Jon Smith changed the dynamic of Ohio’s defense in their first season with the program. Junior forward Ivo Baltic and sophomore shooting guard Nick Kellogg stepped into their roles as the primary player at each position.
“The biggest thing I’ll miss is I enjoy being around these guys,” Groce said. “I’ve enjoyed this team. The fact that we don’t get to practice any more this season hurts me probably more than anything because of how much I’ve enjoyed being around them.”
Though success is never guaranteed, next year’s team has the potential for more magic as the entire squad returns — along with a key addition.
The men’s basketball team announced Sunday that forward Kadeem Green will join the team for the 2012–13 season. Green is a 6-foot-8 transfer from Missouri, where he averaged three points per game in 11 contests.
Green will be eligible to play in January 2013 because he only played through December for the Tigers. He already sat out the 2010–11 season while recovering from an Achilles tear he sustained in high school.
“His versatility on both ends of the court will be an extraordinary asset for this team,” Groce said. “Having followed him since high school, we are very familiar with ability and progression.”