Published Sun, Mar 18, 2012 1:56 pm Dateline
It happens every year, right around this time in March. The NCAA Tournament kicks off and a lot of big-name programs win their first round games with no problem, but there are a selective few each year that don't fall into the mundane and stereotypical; they are called Cinderella.
In 2010, the Ohio Bobcats, even if just for one game, went by that name. The emotional highs that came with the 97-83 win over the third-seeded Georgetown Hoyas were quickly erased and fans found out all too fast that the slipper was still just a little too big for the young 'Cats. That year, John Groce and his team walked away with their heads held high, knowing that they put Ohio basketball on the map.
The 2012 version of the Bobcat basketball team has a different aura around it. The 'Cats aren't playing just to walk away with their heads up and feel like they accomplished something by "just being at the NCAA tournament." Groce, and his now more mature group of players, have their sights set on a berth in the Sweet Sixteen after a 65-60 win (not upset) over the fourth-seeded Michigan Wolverines.
"It's exciting to be able to advance in the NCAA Tournament, but we kind of got a different mindset this year....knowing we can compete with any team in this tournament," guard Dj Cooper said after Friday's win.
But this mentality hasn't just surfaced with this group of players, it's been a mantra all year long. When Ohio lost 59-54 on the road to the then seventh ranked Louisville Cardinals, the sentiment after the game wasn't, "we tried really hard and I'm glad we got to have this experience in a big environment" (paraphrasing), but more the thought process of the a team that felt they deserved to win the game and let it slip through their fingers.
"I'm disappointed, our players are disappointed," Groce said after the loss on Nov. 25. "We didn't come here looking for a moral victory."
"We kind of gave the game away," Ohio guard Dj Cooper said.
From that game until now, the Bobcats have only continued to grow both offensively and defensively, but more importantly, they've grown mentally. And it's that mentality that separates the 2012 Bobcat squad from the one two years ago. Transfer guard Walter Offutt has provided a new source of leadership that Groce's squad has leaned on all year for support.
"We have a lot of confidence right now and that's what we're going to continue to do, just keep it rolling," Offutt said, the day before Ohio's third round NCAA tournament game. "And just ride this momentum all the way, hopefully to the Sweet 16 and then possibly further."
With a few players on this year's roster that experienced the Georgetown game, the elation that came from that win two years ago wasn't quite the same after the win over Michigan Friday night. It was a road block in the way of a goal they had set at the beginning of the season.
"Obviously, I say all the time, experience is a great teacher, but I think those guys, they understand," Groce said, talking about his junior class' experience in the tournament, "last night Dj grabbed those guys leaving the court and said, 'Don't celebrate on the court, act like you've been there before,' so I think they do have a different mindset a little bit so hopefully that serves us well tomorrow."
This Ohio team wants to show the country that it has grown into the slipper, and that everyone at the dance should take notice.