Thursday, March 29, 2012

The "Other" Ohio

Throughout the years, numerous Ohio University fans and alumni have had to address a particular, often-repeated generalization with the following response: "No, we're not the Buckeyes."

The school's official name is "The Ohio University"
Founded in 1804, Ohio was the first university established in the Northwest Territory. The Athens institution has developed a strong academic reputation and boasts several top-tier learning programs. The Bobcats' athletic department has also experienced its share of success.

Despite such honors, it's the Big Ten neighbor located roughly 75 miles to the northwest -- Ohio State University -- that garners most of the national attention.

Ohio State has a more universally recognizable logo
With an enrollment of over 40,000 undergraduate students, OSU has evolved into the state's flagship university. Couple that with a powerful athletic program -- especially in big-money sports like football and men's basketball -- and the Ohio State Buckeyes remain a household name.

As a result, Ohio lives in the shadow of Ohio State, competing in the mid-major Mid-American Conference and enjoying occasional, fleeting success in both football and basketball. Every once in awhile, however, the Bobcats are thrust into the national spotlight.

 Many MAC schools fly under-the-radar, compared to high-major counterparts
The 2011-12 Ohio basketball team enjoyed some record-setting success during the regular season and MAC Tournament. Their 27 wins were a program-best, junior point guard D.J. Cooper set the Bobcats' all-time assists record, and the team ranked among the nation's leaders in steals-per-game.

It all culminated in a thrilling, one-point MAC Championship victory over Akron and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Bobcats were handed a #13-seed in the Midwest region, and sent to Nashville, Tennessee for a 2nd round matchup against the #4 Michigan Wolverines.

 Ohio head coach John Groce holds up the MAC Championship trophy (Photo courtesy: Cleveland Plain Dealer)

The tournament pairing was significant for many in Ohio. As Ohio State's chief rival, the Wolverines drew the ire of nearly all Buckeyes' fans. Legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes used to refer to Michigan as "That School Up North."

Michigan has never been looked upon favorably in Ohio

Those in Athens, meanwhile, felt disrespected by Wolverines' football coach Brady Hoke. He unwittingly stoked the fire of quite a few by continually referring to Ohio State as "Ohio" in the days leading up to Michigan's football game against the Buckeyes last November, as if Ohio University didn't exist.

Whether those feelings of slight trickled down to the Ohio basketball team is anyone's guess, but Bobcats' fans seemed intent on informing Michigan of their presence.

Michigan football coach Brady Hoke's words caught the Bobcats' attention (Photo courtesy:

Prior to the Friday evening session in Nashville on March 16th, fans dressed in green-and-white and maize-and-blue intermingled on the Bridgestone Arena concourse, watching various TV's as NCAA Tournament action played out elsewhere.

The crowds gathered and grew as 15th-seeded Norfolk State shocked 2nd-seeded Missouri in the West region. It was probably the last time that Wolverines' and Bobcats' fans would agree on something for the rest of the night -- with many cheering the 86-84 upset win for the Spartans.

Could another Cinderella story develop in this very arena?

 Opening tip-off between Ohio and Michigan in Nashville

The game started with Ohio and Michigan matching each other, shot-for-shot. After five minutes of play, the Bobcats and Wolverines were tied, 9-9. The green-clad Ohio fans felt encouraged by the early performance, since it appeared their team wasn't backing down from the Big Ten foe.

Despite the seeding disparity, this particular March Madness matchup featured two high-end point guards. Ohio's D.J. Cooper averaged 14.7 points and 5.7 assists-per-game, while Michigan's freshman sensation, Trey Burke (who incidentally, is from Columbus, home of Ohio State), averaged nearly 15 points-per-game.

 The point-guard matchup between D.J. Cooper and Trey Burke was one to watch

Both teams grasped for the upper-hand, but they seemed to be evenly-matched. With 7:56 remaining in the 1st half, Ohio held a slim 22-20 advantage. During the media timeout, those wearing maize-and-blue nervously sang along to the Michigan fight song, "Hail to the Victors." Bobcats' fans, meanwhile, stood and applauded their team's effort.

 The Michigan band plays "Hail to the Victors" during a timeout

During the next few minutes, Ohio made its move, going on a 10-2 run to build a 10-point lead. An acrobatic shot by junior guard Walter Offutt brought most of the 11,625 in attendance to their feet, bolstering the Bobcats' fan base. Michigan then committed a major faux pas, fouling Cooper on a three-point attempt and giving him three free throws -- all of which were converted. With 3:56 left in the 1st half, the Wolverines were reeling.

Walter Offutt's off-balance shot sparked the Bridgestone Arena crowd

Sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. would keep Michigan in the game, tallying 10 points during the initial 20 minutes. As both teams headed to the locker room for halftime, #13 Ohio held a 35-29 lead over the #4 Wolverines. Bobcats' fans were feeling pretty good about their chances, even though the outcome was far from decided.

Ohio was 20 minutes away from a possible upset

As the 2nd half got into full-swing, Michigan launched numerous attempts to take control of the action and force Ohio to relinquish the lead. The Bobcats proved resilient, however, maintaining a 42-37 edge with 15:08 left in regulation.

With Ohio still in front, those inside Bridgestone Arena who didn't have a particular rooting interest started to vocally pull for the underdog. Suddenly, the numerous Wolverines' fans in attendance were outnumbered. Not only was Michigan playing against a tough Bobcats' squad, but they now had to contend with a suddenly partisan crowd.

 Most of Nashville started backing the Bobcats as the game continued

Watching from my seat in Section 328, the Green-and-White continued to withstand the Wolverines' push. With 9:20 remaining, the Bobcats led 55-48. Could Ohio, the MAC school that upended Georgetown in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, pull off its second big upset in three years?

Cooper led the Bobcats' scorers with 21 points against Michigan

Michigan wasn't going down without a fight, however. Led by Burke and Evan Smotrycz, the Wolverines clawed their way back into the game, only trailing 60-57 with 5:26 left in the 2nd half. Suddenly, the maize-and-blue clad fans could make their collective voice heard once again, urging their team to complete the comeback.

Evan Smotrycz drives to the hoop against Reggie Keely

Knowing what was at stake, both teams clamped down defensively. Over the next four minutes, Michigan and Ohio combined for only six points, with the Bobcats clinging to a 63-60 lead.

  Tough defense defined the final few minutes

The Bridgestone Arena crowd stood for the final minute of regulation. Some clapped, some yelled encouragement, and others pensively placed their hands over their mouths -- seemingly frozen by the tension of the moment.

Every Michigan shot drew a collective gasp from both sides, while every Ohio possession seemed to take forever. For Bobcats' fans, the clock could not move quickly enough.

The three-point lead was not enough for Ohio fans' comfort

With :17.7 left, the Wolverines had the ball, still trailing 63-60. Smotrycz -- one of the Michigan stars of the 2nd half -- dribbled near the sideline. As he approached the three-point line, he suddenly lost the basketball! A scramble between maize- and green-uniformed players ensued, with Offutt coming up with the loose ball for Ohio.

Offutt pounces on the critical Michigan turnover

The Bobcats' fan base erupted with delight as Offutt was fouled with :06.8 remaining. All the junior guard had to do was make one at least free throw, and the game was -- for all intents and purposes -- over.

Offutt -- a transfer from Ohio State -- calmly strode to the foul line as everyone inside the arena stood. With only Michigan fans making noise to try and cause a distraction, Offutt swished the first shot. The majority of the Bridgestone Arena crowd roared in approval. He then sank the second free throw for good measure, and those in the Ohio cheering section began to high-five and hug each other in celebration.

Offutt ices the game for the Bobcats

As time ran out, the upset bid became a reality. #13 Ohio -- the Bobcats, not the Buckeyes -- had knocked off #4 Michigan, 65-60, eliminating the Wolverines from the NCAA Tournament and ending their season.

March Madness at its finest

Wearing downtrodden expressions on their faces, the Michigan players left the floor after shaking hands with their opponent. Meanwhile, the Ohio band played "Stand Up and Cheer," the school's fight song, as Bobcats' fans and players soaked in the ecstatic moment.

Within minutes of the game's conclusion, my cell phone was filled with congratulatory messages from friends and family members. There's always a special significance when your alma mater -- the underdog -- comes out on top.

Ohio fans celebrate the victory

It was ironic, to say the least, that Michigan and Ohio were matched up in the NCAA Tournament so soon after Hoke's comments. In the grand scheme of things, however, the words mean very little. After all, two members of the Wolverines' basketball coaching staff had previous ties to the Bobcats, so there was undoubtedly some familiarity on that end.

Still, everything in college basketball is magnified during this time of year. A mere story in November or December becomes a legendary tale in March. It only enhances the Madness.

 Ohio's win over Michigan provided a new March Madness memory for me

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Chance To Dance

Throughout the month of March, every college basketball game takes on added importance.
March is college basketball's time to shine

Every shot, every minute and every half are magnified. Dreams can be made or shattered during a single possession. Individual players can become legendary -- or dubious -- depending on the situation.

While some teams carry national championship hopes and expectations of reaching the Final Four throughout the season, other schools simply want to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Winning the conference and receiving an automatic bid to the Big Dance can do wonders for revenue, recruiting and positive feelings among the fan base.

 St. Bonaventure hadn't appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2000

Throughout its history, the St. Bonaventure men's basketball program has had some claims to fame. Led by future Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, the Bonnies (then known as the Brown Indians) reached the Final Four in 1970. Overall, St. Bonaventure has had five NCAA Tournament appearances, the last being in 2000.

Bob Lanier led St. Bonaventure to the Final Four in 1970 (Photo courtesy: St. Bonaventure University)

Since then, scandal had taken a toll on the Bonnies.

In 2003, it was found that junior college transfer Jamil Terrell was allowed to join the program, despite only having a welding certificate and not an associate's degree. The controversy cost the program three years' probation, and led to the firings of the university president, basketball coaching staff and athletic director.

Academic scandal surrounding Jamil Terrell crippled the Bonnies' program (St. Bonaventure)

During the next four seasons, St. Bonaventure had a record of 24-88, leading many fans to wonder if they'd ever fully recover from the scandal's fallout.

St. Bonaventure drew a #4 seed for the 2012 Atlantic 10 Tournament

Heading into the 2012 Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament, few believed that the Bonnies had a good chance of winning it all. The #1-seeded Temple Owls were the only nationally-ranked team in the conference, while the St. Louis Billikens and Xavier Musketeers were expected to threaten for the title as well.

St. Bonaventure entered the tournament as the #4 seed, finishing the regular season with a 10-6 conference record and a 17-11 overall mark. To reach the NCAA's, the Bonnies would have to win three games in three consecutive days.

 Winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament was the Bonnies' only hope of reaching the NCAA's

As the tournament got under way at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, there was meager support for the Brown-and-White. You could practically count the number of St. Bonaventure fans in attendance as they faced the #5 seed, St. Joseph's.

Led by A-10 Offensive Player of the Year Andrew Nicholson, the Bonnies slipped past the Hawks, 71-68, advancing to a Saturday semifinal matchup with the Massachusetts Minutemen, which upset Temple in the quarterfinal round.

 Andrew Nicholson's 25 points and 10 rebounds led the Bonnies past St. Joseph's

UMass -- the tournament's #8 seed -- did all it could to limit Nicholson, double-teaming the 6'9" senior forward from Canada at every opportunity. Swingman Demitrius Conger stepped up, however, scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in an 84-80 victory. The Bonnies were suddenly one win away from an improbable conference championship.

 Demitrius Conger had a big game for the Bonnies in the semifinals

On Sunday, March 11th, St. Bonaventure faced Xavier, with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line. It was all-or-nothing for the Bonnies -- win, and they're a part of the Big Dance for the first time in 12 years. A loss would likely send them to the less-attractive National Invitation Tournament.

The Atlantic 10 championship trophy and NCAA Tournament automatic bid awaited the winner
Unlike Friday's quarterfinal round, the majority of those in attendance for Sunday's championship game were pulling for the Bonnies. Several buses left at 4 am to make the roughly 7-hour trek from the St. Bonaventure campus in Olean, New York to Atlantic City.

St. Bonaventure fans filled the student section and other parts of Boardwalk Hall

The St. Bonaventure student section was packed and ready to party, with numerous signs expressing their support. Even those without a rooting interest were pulling for the underdog Bonnies, which lost their only other meeting with Xavier this season, 77-64 in mid-January.

With a crowd of 6,101 looking on, the #4-seed Bonnies and #3 Musketeers tipped off.

 The opening tip-off

For the first few minutes, the two teams felt each other out with conservative play. Perhaps it was nerves, or maybe it was fatigue from playing games throughout the weekend. After five minutes, St. Bonaventure and Xavier were tied 5-5.

 Early stages of the A-10 Championship in Atlantic City

Following the game's first media timeout, the Bonnies went on a run that established momentum for the rest of the 1st half. Andrew Nicholson nailed back-to-back three-pointers, causing most of Boardwalk Hall to roar in approval. Eric Mosley followed with a three of his own. Suddenly, the team that had relied on interior play to win its first two A-10 Tournament games was hitting shots from the perimeter.

 Nicholson's outside shooting helped set an early tone

The Bonnies made 48% of their shots from the floor in the 1st half, and hit 5-of-11 from three-point range. Nicholson -- a potential 1st round NBA draft pick this summer -- was his usual dominant self, scoring 12 points. The St. Bonaventure bench players also played a major role, outscoring Xavier's bench 14-2. It all added up to a 37-24 halftime lead.

Solid team basketball helped the Bonnies to a 13-point halftime advantage

In the stands, Bonnies' fans were starting to believe that this was their day. Those clad in brown would cheer a little louder with each made shot and every defensive stop. Those wearing navy blue for Xavier, meanwhile, were quiet and subdued, seemingly resigned to hoping for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

 Bonnies' fans show their pride during the A-10 Championship

The Bonnies would carry their momentum into the early part of the 2nd half, building a 17-point lead at one point. Sitting at the top of Section 220, my friend Phil and I were amazed by St. Bonaventure's performance. They were truly feeding off the crowd and outhustling the Musketeers.

 The Bonnies looked determined to earn a NCAA berth

Xavier showed that it had some fight left, however. Junior guard Mark Lyons helped lead the charge, scoring 7 consecutive points to bring the Musketeers within 8. There was still 14:14 remaining in the 2nd half, and many started wondering if St. Bonaventure was losing their killer instinct.

With 8:02 left in the 2nd half, Xavier cut the Bonnies' lead to 50-45. Most of those inside Boardwalk Hall rose to their feet, cheering for different reasons. The St. Bonaventure fans were trying to rally their team, while those supporting the Musketeers urged their team to sustain the momentum.

 Xavier tries to plot a comeback

In the end, however, it was the Bonnies' day to dance. Playing a stout defense while making their free throws down the stretch, St. Bonaventure outscored Xavier 17-11 over the final 8 minutes.

 Tough defense kept St. Bonaventure in front
As those last seconds ticked away on the scoreboard clock, the Bonnies started to raise their arms in celebration, while those wearing brown-and-white in the stands started jumping up-and-down, high-fiving and hugging each other.

 Bonnies' fans were starting to sense the moment

When the clock reached :00.0, the scoreboard read 67-56 in favor of St. Bonaventure, giving the school the Atlantic 10 basketball championship and its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 12 years. A loud, sustained cheer from the Bonnies' faithful echoed inside Boardwalk Hall.

 Atlantic 10 Tournament Champions

The St. Bonaventure players hugged and received their A-10 Championship t-shirts at center court as boisterous chants of "S-B-U! S-B-U!" and "Let's Go Bonas!" rang throughout the arena.

For those who made the long bus ride from Olean that morning, the next sequence must have felt like a dream. St. Bonaventure head coach Mark Schmidt was handed the Atlantic 10 championship trophy, the Bonnies' first since joining the conference in 1979.

The trophy presentation

By now, most of the 6,101 in attendance had headed for the exits, but those who stayed continued their passionate cheers as every player and coach climbed a ladder to cut down the nets. Many players would cut small snippets of the net as personal souvenirs, while also working to remove it from the basketball rim.

The Bonnies cut down the nets

As the scissors cut through the nylon fabric for the last time, a final cheer was let loose by Bonnies' fans. Now they could focus on the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, and find out where they would be headed next on this college basketball journey.

Head coach Mark Schmidt celebrates

Part of the appeal of March Madness is that teams can come from out of nowhere to capture one's heart. In the case of St. Bonaventure, few believed they had a real chance at reaching the Big Dance as recently as last Friday. Three days and three games later, they were Atlantic 10 Champions and rewarded with a matchup against Florida State in Nashville on Friday.

Whether the Bonnies continue their success in the NCAA Tournament is immaterial. For the team and their fans, it has already been a magical ride.

 Next stop: NCAA Tournament