Published Thu, Mar 22, 2012 6:30 pm Dateline
Updated Thu, Mar 22, 2012 6:54 pm
At this point, in the NCAA Sweet 16, most teams are playing some brand of the "best ball they've played all season."
Take the Midwest Regional, for instance. North Carolina State has won six of its last seven (its only loss came to UNC in the ACC Tournament). North Carolina, Ohio's Friday opponent, has won 11 of its last 12 games. Kansas? 11-1 in its last 12 contests.
Every team left in the tournament believes it can win. Even farther beneath the surface, every player who plays a big impact role for any of the remaining teams believes he can match-up with whoever he's being guarded by.
But the Bobcats, the so-called "Cinderellas" of this year's tournament, just happen to be playing at a confidence level that seems closer to the International Space Station than to the hardwood floor at the Edward Jones Dome.
It's a confidence that fringes on stupidity and lands smack in the middle of irrational. It's the kind of confidence that gives the hefty guy a chance with the hottest girl in the bar.
There's no reason why Ohio should believe it can beat North Carolina. UNC has high-star recruits as walk-ons. It starts four NBA lottery picks. It is North Carolina.
But that's only what I think, sitting here in the St. Louis press room. I've never had irrational confidence in anything but tying my shoes, and even then, the shoelaces aren't 6-foot-9 with the ability to jump through the roof of my living room.
"I'm not scared of anyone," says Ohio's Walter Offutt, who on Friday will be guarding Harrison Barnes, the human version of the sneaker threads I speak of.
This set of Bobcat players actually believes it can beat the Tar Heels, and the news that Kendall Marshall probably won't play Friday only increases the confidence in that line of thought.
The scariest part of the ionosphere-high confidence that these guys are feeling, though, is that it's creeping into other topics of conversation, not just the match-up with UNC.
Dj Cooper is starting to wonder aloud if the MAC East was woefully underrated by the national media. If the 'Cats win once more, maybe he'll start to think Eastern Michigan was worthy of an at-large discussion. One starts to wonder if Reggie Keely thinks Ohio won the rebounding battle against South Florida.
But there is no better example of irrational confidence than T.J. Hall.
Hall suffered through a stretch in the middle of the season where he shot 3-30 from 3-point range over 16 games. For those keeping track at home, that's 10 percent. Hall was just a 24 percent 3-point shooter for the regular season.
But since Ricardo Johnson's back injury has kept him out of much of the postseason, Hall's extra minutes have contributed to - or possibly created, if we're being honest - our definition of irrational confidence. Ohio's ninth man is 7-14 from 3-point distance since the start of the MAC Tournament. That's not to mention that with Johnson - perhaps Ohio's best pure defender - injured, Hall was part of the committee of players guarding the opposition's best players (namely UM's Tim Hardaway, Jr. and USF's Victor Rudd, Jr.). He even poked the ball away from Michigan's Evan Smotrycz with 10 seconds left in Ohio's second round win.
"I never really get down on myself," Hall said, the day before playing UNC. "They keep me up, man, these guys around me. I trust them a lot and they trust me. When I hit shots, I feel like I'm supposed to do those types of things and they feel like I'm supposed to do those types of things."
No you're not, T.J.! You're supposed to be the ninth man on a third-place MAC East team. You're supposed to shoot 26 percent from three - his career average before March 8 - not 50. You're supposed to be a liability, not a reliable 3-point threat off the bench. But he's doing it. It's dangerous to office pools everywhere when Cinderella has this kind of swagger. Ask those who picked against Ali Farokhmanesh. Ask the others who picked against Butler in 2011. Ask me, who thought Michigan State would smash George Mason in the first round in 2006 (I had Izzo and company in the Final Four).
Even North Carolina knows what irrational confidence can mean to a Cinderella.
"A lot is dangerous about that," UNC forward John Henson said. "They're shooting better than they shot all year, 3-point wise. Playing more confident. I mean, even in practice, when our guys are running their offense, it's tough to guard."
You can try all you want to tell me this team deserves to believe it can beat Carolina.
"But Grant, they were the better team for 60 of 80 minutes against Michigan and South Florida!"
You would be correct in that statement, that the 'Cats definitely belong here, in the Sweet 16, but you don't have a confident leg to stand on when it comes to North Carolina. The only thing that tells me is that you, too, have bought in, and rightfully so.
You're irrationally confident in this team's irrational confidence.
And the more Ohio sticks around on Friday night, the more that feeling of belonging reproduces like rabbits. If T.J. Hall feels it, I can feel it. Even Nick Goff's beard feels it. David McKinley's hair has always known it. John Groce embodies it.
It needs a ton of things to happen to win Friday night in St. Louis, but maybe, to perfectly fit into its slipper, Ohio only needs to pack its irrational confidence.