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Ohio redshirt junior guard Jaaron Simmons (#2) goes up for a layup around two Kent State defenders during the second half of the Bobcat's 68-66 loss in the MAC Tournament semifinals.

Men's Basketball: The future looks brighter than ever for the Bobcats

CLEVELAND — Jaaron Simmons sat in his chair, leaned forward and answered the media's questions as honestly as he had all year long. There was a sense of calm about him, but it didn't have to be that way.

Simmons and the Bobcats just saw their season end in the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals, a two-point loss to Kent State. Most wouldn't be in the mood to speak.

What's worse, was that the season ended with the ball in Simmons' hands — Ohio's best player's hands. Simmons had carried Ohio all season long, so it almost seemed fitting that for better or worse, it ended that way. 

He could have offered excuses. He could have explained the final play. He could have made mention of his tired legs, legs that played handfuls of entire games down the stretch. Rather, he was as honest as ever.

"They did a good job on defense," he said. "I thought I had a little more time and tried to kick it out just because I wasn't open at all, and unfortunately we just didn't get a shot up at the rim."

But Simmons' most eye-opening comment came just seconds later. 

"It's tough to lose my seniors, my brothers," Simmons, a redshirt junior, said. "But you know, we going to keep our head up, we going to get back in the gym, get back in the weight room, get better, and we'll be playing on Saturday next year."

Just minutes after a gut-wrenching loss, Simmons was already focused on next year. His thinking wasn't premature, either.

Ohio started just one senior, Kenny Kaminski, after Antonio Campbell's season-ending injury in mid-January. But even though the Bobcats will return four starters next year, youth isn't a characteristic that this year's team will be remembered by.

Instead, it's a characteristic that nearly made coach Saul Phillips cry at that same press conference where Simmons spoke so confidently.

"I don't think I've had a group that showed the resiliency and togetherness throughout this whole process," Phillips said. "Every fiber of my being is proud of what they accomplished."

Cambell's injury, one from the reigning MAC Player of the Year, left the Bobcats in a position that looked unrecoverable. He would be replaced by Doug Taylor, who was used to coming off the bench. Taylor was replaced by Jason Carter, a freshman that hadn't yet made a start.

Yet, the Bobcats nearly forced their way into the MAC Championship Game a night later. Oh, and Kent State beat Akron to win the MAC. It's easy to see how close Ohio is, even though it should have never been that close. At least not yet. 

"Well, this group has been dealing with adversity since early January," Phillips said. "Throughout the whole time what's been amazing is how they refused to let losing a league MVP as an excuse."

That resiliency is the trait that probably led Simmons to predict Ohio's appearance in the MAC title game next season. After all, the Bobcats will return just about every key contributor. 

Simmons is one of the conference's best players at the point guard position, and will return for his third season at the top of the key for Ohio. He's now earned the respect of everyone in the conference, too.

Akron coach Keith Dambrot after a loss to, of all teams, Kent State in February, said Simmons' 38-point performance against the Zips was more of a fluke than a showcase of the guard's ability. He apologized Saturday. 

"I love that kid, I love what he stands for, I believe he's one of the best players in the league," coach Dambrot said as a part of his apology to Simmons on Saturday night. "I voted him that way two years in a row."

Aside from Simmons, Ohio will return Jordan Dartis, one of the team's best 3-point shooters of all time, and Gavin Block, who Phillips said should be named "Gavin Charge" because of the guard's ability to draw charges. 

Down low will be Carter, who earned a spot on the First Team All-MAC Freshman. Carter averaged 9.9 points per game and 6.6 rebounds, but that takes into account his time from the beginning of the season. 

Since he entered the starting lineup, Carter averaged 14.2 points and 8.6 rebounds. He also had five double-doubles since then, falling one rebound short three other times. 

"Doug (Taylor) and Jason stepped up huge this season," Kaminski said. "You couldn't have expected them to do what they did after we lost Tony and the ball came around to me, and I happened to make a shot but it just wasn't enough today."

With the expected growth of Taylor, Ohio has the building blocks of next season already in place. 

"I have high expectations for Doug ... basketball‑wise, he's only had about five full seasons of it in his life," Phillips said. "His ceiling is very high. He's a willing listener. We'll get him, we'll get him squared away, I can promise you that."

Guard James Golon will return from injury, and the team might see the return of 6-foot-9 forward Khari Harley from back problems next season. 

Mike Laster and Rodney Culver, both of whom came off the bench this season, will be back as well. Laster averaged five points per game and just under two rebounds, while Culver, a freshman, was used mostly for his defensive skill-set. 

Ohio's recruiting class will bring in three new faces to add to the depth, too. 

Maybe it's not so hard to see why Simmons is so sure of his statement. 

In fact, of the four starters Ohio will return next year, just one (Simmons) will be a senior. Carter will be a sophomore and Block and Dartis will be juniors. Even if Taylor takes that final spot, he'll be just a junior. 

For a team that showed the fight and resiliency that Ohio did, to graduate just one senior starter seems almost unfair. But as Phillips said, when the season is on the line, basketball isn't fair.

"March isn't about fairness, it isn't about — it's making a play and Kenny made a big play," Phillips said Thursday.

But for the Bobcats, who went through every ounce of adversity a team could feasibly go through in one season, the future could not be any brighter. And that bright future might just lead to Simmons' prediction coming true, under the bright lights of The Q next March. After all, that might be fair. 

"If you didn't concede that this group exceeded expectations after what we went through, then you just don't like me or the team," Phillips said. "That's all there is to it."


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