Odds are you don't watch a lot of Mid-American Conference basketball. I know I don't.
It is easier to follow MAC football for a number of reasons (prodigious cross-scheduling with the Big Ten, plenty of mid-week MACtion), but when it comes to our mid-major regional relatives there is a lot less exposure.
We here at Maize n Brew sympathize. We know it is hard to scout an opponent you haven't watched. So we went out and found a few voices well versed in the subtle and understated beauty that is mid-major basketball.
One of those voices comes to us from the website macreportonline.com. His name is J Scott Fitzwater (find him on twitter here: @jscottfitzwater), and not only does he know the Bobcats, he was generous enough to answer a few questions I had.
In my early reading about Ohio the one name that has jumped off the page is DJ Cooper. Let our readers know just how good Cooper is and what kind of player he is.
Cooper is a special player. He has unparalleled vision and instinct and is creative with his passing. More than once, he's made a pass you have to watch on replay just to understand what he just did. Without question, he's Ohio spearhead. He will get his teammates involved and then take over when he needs to. Pomeroy lists him at 17th in the country in steal percentage, so you have to watch out him on defense, too. He can also rebound, which isn't bad for a 5'11" guard. He has a triple-double to his name this year. He's also absolutely fearless, which sometimes leads to him making some poor decisions or forcing the moment. He likes to, as he puts it, "go for the jugular." But as last week's conference tournament and the Georgetown win show, he plays best on the big stage. Michigan fans will probably enjoy his game but not DJ himself; he actively works to find ways to get under the skin of his opposition. He has a chance to finish his career with 2,000 points and 1,000 assists, which would make him a member of a very exclusive club.
Michigan is particularly proud of seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass --- two players that provide a great deal of leadership and clutch plays without being stars. What player or players on Ohio's team have an impact far greater than their statistical profile would suggest.
Walt Offutt and Jon Smith. Smith's line doesn't jump out at you, but he's a very good post defender who can neutralize bigger threats. He's also good for an energizing putback dunk or two. As for Offutt, John Groce said Saturday night he gives the team its toughness. And it's true. Offutt himself as a whole is greater than his parts. He's Ohio's top on-ball defender and finds ways to make a difference on the court. In the MAC championship, he was saddled with foul trouble the whole game but stepped in to take a critical charge late. And when he scores 12 points, the Bobcats are 17-0.Ohio seems to play with a small-ball lineup most of the time. How would you characterize the offensive philosophy?
They want to get points in transition whenever they can. Off turnovers, they streak toward the basket with someone floating out to the perimeter for a kickout three. Reggie Keely runs the court surprisingly well for someone of his size. They'll even run off made baskets by opponents, so the Wolverines can't get caught snoozing and be ready to run for 40 minutes. In the halfcourt, you're going to see a lot of high ball screens to create mismatches. It all starts with Cooper. If left open, he'll take a three. If he has a mismatch, he'll penetrate. He can pull up, loft a floater, finish (and he almost always draws contact. He draws 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes), or dish. The goal, really, is to get the defense to collapse so he can find the open man. It's very tough to defend, but he has a little more trouble doing it against the zone. Nick Kellogg is the team's best deep threat, though lately he's recognized that and put the ball on the floor a little more. With all the high screens, there's a lot of pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. Ivo Baltic is perfectly comfortable popping for a jumper or rolling to the basket. His back-to-the-basket game is lacking, though, and he can become a bit of a black hole. Keely is a good low post scorer. If none of that works, they simply crash the glass hard. They get 35.2% of their misses back.
Michigan is constantly misidentified as a 1-3-1 zone team even though the Wolverines play that zone less than 10% of the time in recent years. What is Ohio's defensive game plan?
Hard-nosed man-to-man defense with some zone sprinkled in. Lots of pressing. They press on almost every dead ball inbound and after some made baskets. Ohio is, depending on your statistical source, first or second in the country in opponent turnover percentage. They have a few people that can outright steal the ball. They'll double in the post and dig. And they take charges. Lots of charges. As a team, they rotate very well and don't leave men open on the outside open. That's why they're a top 20 team in defending the three.
A few years ago Ohio pulled off a shocking upset over Georgetown. How did the Bobcats engineer that upset, and do you think this game could go in a similar direction?
I don't think an OU win would shock many people this year. They're not sneaking up on anybody. But in 2010, they used their athletic and quickness advantage, forced turnovers, and had an Armon Bassett who apparently doused himself in kerosene before the MAC quarterfinals. Only Cooper, Keely, and Baltic are left from that team and Keely and Baltic played much smaller roles then. That Hoyas team, I think, lacked some toughness, and I don't think I'm going to say the same about Michigan. Can Ohio win? Absolutely. They lost seven games this year and had a chance to win them all. There's something to be said about a team that hasn't gotten blown out. I think Ohio matches up fairly well with Michigan and it's going to be a very competitive game. They won't be scared by the occasion.
What are three things Michigan fans should be worried about seeing on Friday?
1. Ohio making outside shots.
2. Ohio getting defensive rebounds.
3. Offutt shooting well.
What are Ohio's biggest weaknesses?
Offense against the zone has been an issue, mostly because they're inconsistent shooting the ball. They can get good looks, they just can't always convert them. And sometimes they blow a lot of layups. But they shot the ball well in Cleveland, and if that carries over, they're a handful for anyone. They can also struggle on the defensive glass. Buffalo and Akron really beat them up in that area last week.
Anything else I haven't asked about that is noteworthy?
Ohio returns everyone next year (no seniors) and will add Mizzou transfer Kadeem Green midseason. So don't be surprised if there's a lot of buzz around this team next season. This is a team that plays with a lot of energy, a lot of toughness. Also, Ric Johnson has a sweet throwback flat top.
Be sure to check out macreportonline.com for more info on the Bobcats, and thanks again to Scott for answering my questions.