The Big Dance feels more like a slow waltz this season.
The most anticipated week for Ohio in almost a decade feels like more a road game. It’s been nine years since the Bobcats have made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but aside from being on the bracket, the week has been blasé.
In fact, the week has been a drag.
The NCAA has set up a bubble for teams while the tournament proceeds as scheduled over the next two-and-a-half weeks. Teams aren’t allowed to leave the hotel when not practicing. Food has to be delivered and picked up in the lobby. Hotels are supposed to be a getaway, but to the Bobcats, theirs feels like a holding cell.
Ohio’s daily schedule follows the same routine as the regular season. The Bobcats wake up, practice and then kill time with homework or video games. Coach Jeff Boals likened the week to living in the movie Groundhog Day.
“(The tournament) just doesn’t have the same vibe because you're not going outside. You don't see the fans walking around,” Boals said. “Like I said before, the places we can go are the meeting room, your room and practice.”
Rules are meant to be sidestepped, however. When the team left practice Wednesday they took a small detour. The Bobcats walked to the top of a parking garage for a photo opportunity in front of the 47,000 square foot bracket adorning the front of the JW Marriott Hotel in downtown Indianapolis.
The excursion only took 10 minutes. But it was a much-needed 10 minutes.
Time outside is a nice detour from the Bobcats’ daily slog. Aside from practice, the team isn’t allowed much freedom of movement. All the Bobcats have done in their spare time is prepare for the game against Virginia on Saturday.
And so has the rest of the country.
News from media outlets easily trickles in. Boals spends his free time speaking with whoever will give him an opportunity. He wants to spread the word about Ohio to the rest of the country. The Mid-American Conference Champions are in Indiana for a reason and want to make as much noise as possible, for both themselves and the university.
“I think the more publicity Ohio University gets, you know, the better,” Boals said. “We always talk about it. ... There's a lot of other things going on, but it's a great window in this platform to be able to share about Ohio University. And I think we've done that this week, I think we made a lot of people proud.”
Boals’ words inevitably travel down the pipeline and circle back to the Bobcats. Ohio’s case for an upset is strong, and Saturday’s game is drawing attention from both analysts and bracket junkies.
Former President Barack Obama even picked Ohio to make it to the Sweet 16.
Virginia hasn’t practiced on-court since a positive COVID-19 test halted operations during the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. The Cavaliers aren’t due to travel to Indiana until Friday afternoon. Ohio has been there since Sunday, and has had proper full-team practices.
Ohio is riding a confidence wave, but it doesn’t want to venture too far into open water. Virginia is still the reigning NCAA Champions from 2019. Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett has crafted a stranglehold defense during his tenure, and a strong defense poses a serious threat to an offensively-inclined Bobcats roster.
Boals thinks any perceived advantage of being on-site is exaggerated. The Cavaliers are still allowed workouts and individual shooting sessions in Charlottesville. Plus, Virginia isn’t confined to a hotel.
“I think (Virginia’s) had one positive but the other kids have been able to work out, you know, an hour a day,” Boals said. “They've been going to the gym and sleeping in their own beds.”
Saturday will be even playing ground as far as the Bobcats are concerned. Overconfidence kills performance. Virginia lost to 16-seed UMBC in 2018. If a healthy Ohio underestimates a Cavaliers team with only one positive COVID-19 test, it may be in for a reality check.
All the Bobcats can do is pace the floor and wait until the next practice.