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Jaaron Simmons dribbles across the court in Ohio's MAC tournament semifinal game against Buffalo on March 11, 2016.

Men's Basketball: Don't let the Bobcats' bright future distract from the strides they made this season

Ohio lost to Buffalo in the MAC Tournament, but the future is bright for the Bobcats. 

CLEVELAND — Saul Phillips didn’t feel like getting too nostalgic after his team’s 88-74 loss to Buffalo on Friday.

Who could blame him?

He had just coached his team to 21 wins and a Mid-American Conference semifinal game just a year after Ohio managed 10 wins and a first-round exit from the tournament.

He turned a flawed, erratic group of youngsters into a team that looked worthy of challenging top-seeded Akron for the conference title.

Instead, Buffalo — a team Ohio had swept in the regular season — drained 14-of-27 3-point shots, outrebounded the Bobcats by 10, and cut his team’s championship hopes and NCAA tournament aspirations.

“We lost to a team we lost to zero times during the year and they got us when it mattered,” Phillips said. “That’s why it hurts. Pardon me if I don’t feel like getting all philosophical about how magical the ride’s been right now.

“I’m sure I’ll be able to at some point,” he added.

But even if Phillips isn’t in the mood to reflect, it doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t.

Fans have gotten acquainted enough with names like Jaaron Simmons, Kenny Kaminski and Jordan Dartis to forget that none of them played a single minute for Ohio last season. Even the team’s lone senior, Treg Setty, was hardly a seasoned veteran with just 12 starts to his credit in three years of college basketball experience.  

The only proven commodity in the lineup was Antonio Campbell, a junior forward who made 25 starts last season and averaged 10 points and eight rebounds per game. Those are solid numbers for the third-or-fourth best starter on your team to have, but not numbers you expect to lead.

So, Campbell turned that line into 18 points and 10 rebounds per game in 2016. It was a season performance that didn’t just lead his team. It got him MAC Player of the Year.

"I think we can build on a lot of things," Phillips said. "I'm not one of these guys that I'm going to write the score on my office wall, stare at it every day while I do push-ups ... It stings because it stings.  We made great progress this year but we still had flaws and some of those flaws are the fact that we threw this team together pretty quickly in the grand scheme of things."

The team’s ability to win games in the conference even felt like a radical turnaround from what was expected.

It began the MAC season with a 2-4 record. At times, it couldn’t guard the perimeter, couldn’t keep its most important player in Campbell on the floor enough and couldn’t catch the right breaks.

It seemed unthinkable that it’d go the rest of the way with a 9-3 record and land the second seed in the MAC Tournament. And after the way its offense had performed against Buffalo during the regular season, it seemed unthinkable that it would dry up and allow the Bulls to end its title run in the semifinals.

"We just weren't settled in," Simmons said. "We were very anxious, the ball was a little sticky. We just weren't playing like we normally play."

The season likely isn’t over.

Campbell and Phillips were clear about wanting to play in a postseason tournament if an invitation is extended. There's still time left for this group to accomplish something more before the season officially closes.

But even if it doesn’t, it’s worth considering how many unlikely leaps the Bobcats had to make to reach the heights they did. The roster was young, unpredictable, and had little experience playing with each other. 

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The future’s still bright, but that shouldn’t make anyone forget about how good the present is.

"Keep the togetherness going, carry it on to next season," Campbell said when asked why his reason to play in the postseason this year.  

aw987712@ohio.edu

@_TonyWolfe_

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