On Saul Phillips’ desk, there’s a small blue sign that reads “Solidly Average” in bold white lettering.
Phillips, now in his third year coaching Ohio men’s basketball, joked that his daughter Jordan gave it to him after the middle schooler binge watched the U.S. sitcom, “The Office."
Sure, some parallels could be made between Phillips — witty and exuberant as ever while sitting on his office’s loveseat — and Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott.
But the sign’s message simply isn’t true. The Bobcats won’t be “Solidly Average” in 2016.
They should be pretty darn good.
“I just think we gotta foundation set in place that you’re gonna see improvement for a while,” Phillips said. “That’s how a program is built … If I am relieved, I think it’s 'cause we’re heading towards being a very good program, not because I think there won’t be any bumps in the road this year.”
Phillips said his team has “ticked off all the boxes needed” this summer after a quick turnaround in 2016, which saw Ohio win 13 more games than in 2015.
Those boxes included bolstering a defense that ranked 11 out of 12 conference teams last year and adding more depth off the bench.
Ohio was only using about seven players during its run to the Mid-American Conference tournament last year as signs of fatigue started to show on its starting five.
Now, the Bobcats should have 9 to 10 players to work with, as Phillips said no injuries are affecting the team this offseason.
Phillips said incoming freshmen Rodney Culver and Jason Carter should be “efficient” in fulfilling the Bobcats’ needs. Culver could be a lockdown defender, listed at 6-foot-5, by improving the Bobcats’ ball pressure. While Carter, in Phillips' words, is “someone you want in a foxhole with you.”
“Heck, I think our freshman are both capable of making an impact,” Phillips said of his two new players. “I think we moved further along to solve our depth issue than we have the defense issue at this point. We have more options this year, and that’s good."
The Bobcats lost only one player this offseason in Treg Setty, and will have 14 returning faces. That includes last year’s MAC Player of the Year, Antonio Campbell who flirted with the NBA last spring.
Phillips said Campbell was looked at by the Orlando Magic and trimmed a few pounds to help endurance. Last year as a junior, Campbell averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds and a block on 56 percent shooting from the field.
In terms of the offense, Ohio’s stronger suit, expect more of the same in 2017. Ohio ranked first in points per game during MAC play, as Phillips said more high pick-and-rolls will come from the forward-guard combo of Campbell and guard Jaaron Simmons.
“You want to add enough wrinkles that it sets people off balance a little bit, but our heavyweight has to be carried on the (defensive) side of the ball and we gotta get a lot better on that end,” Phillips said. “Regardless of what you’re doing, it takes a long time to get good at something.”
Finally, Phillips mentioned trying to garner the “best mid-major opponents” for this season’s schedule.
Ohio’s schedule was released Tuesday, which includes four opponents in last year's top 100 RPI: Akron, Buffalo, Iona and Georgia Tech. As Phillips said, predicting what teams the Bobcats will play depends on potential, as opposed to their current state.
For example, Western Kentucky obtained a top-10 high school recruit along with former Buffalo guard Lamonte Bearden, who helped upset Ohio in last year’s MAC tournament.
Again, Phillips and the Bobcats are striving for “Solidly Average” in 2016. Or, even better.
“We’ll be a good team this year, got a chance to be a great team,” Phillips said. “We’ll be a great program in three years.”