Blog – Men’s basketball: It’s early, but Ohio looks good

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Ohio head basketball coach John Groce started this season with the idea that his team wasn’t a good one, but they had the “potential to be very good.” Although it is a young season, the Bobcats may have turned that potential into reality.

Given the fact that the schedule is 30 games long, three wins is only a small step. However, it’s difficult to be upset with a 3-0 record heading into a statement game against a nationally-ranked opponent. Ohio’s three wins could be exactly the confidence-building push they need to compete with the seventh-ranked Louisville Cardinals. Last season, the Bobcats had another chance to take on a team in the spotlight when they took on the then-sixth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. The ‘Cats took that loss on the chin, in the mouth, on the kidneys, and in the teeth, losing 98-41. That was a kiss with a fist Ohio couldn’t take on the road to a disappointing 18-15 record.

It’s safe to say Ohio would like a better showing in this year’s marquee matchup. The Bobcats will rely heavily on their swarming defense, athleticism, and depth to run the Cards ragged. Ohio has a turnover differential of +22 and has been able to steal possessions away from opponents while also making their own possessions.

One of the biggest improvements in Ohio’s team this season is the rebounding, particularly on the offensive end. Ohio has an astounding 48 offensive rebounds in just three games for an average of 16 per game. Compare that with last year’s average of 12.3 offensive boards over 35 games and that’s an improvement of almost four rebounds per game.

The interesting aspect of Ohio’s rebounding is the places from which it has come. Redshirt junior Walter Offutt is averaging just over seven rebounds per game from the shooting guard position. An atypical skill at that position, Offutt’s rebounding has turned heads after two consecutive nine-rebound games against Lamar and Arkansas State. That, combined with his scoring and defensive abilities, has Offutt looking and playing like a force for the ‘Cats this season. Perhaps, even an All-MAC-sized force. Offutt ranks in the top 20 in the conference in three major statistical categories: points, rebounds, and steals. Offutt’s impact on not only his team, but on his conference, is being felt in a big way in just his first season playing in an Ohio Bobcats uniform.

As far as impact is concerned, it’s fair to say that Reggie Keely has had a huge impact on the ‘Cats’ season so far. Keely’s lackluster performance in past seasons has left much to be desired of the 6’8” junior. Last season, Keely finished averaging just over five points and just under five rebounds per game. Fans, coaches, and teammates have waited for Keely to play to his size, a problem he’s had in seasons past. However, so far this season, he has been one of Ohio’s biggest surprises, posting 37 points in three games for an average of more than 12 per game. Keely has also kept with Ohio’s rebounding trend, yanking down six per game.

What seems to be the most improved part of Keely’s game is his athleticism. What used to be just a 6’8” 265-pound body to take up space in the paint has turned into a lean, mean scoring machine. He seems to be playing with a renewed energy and a new focus. Rather than being continually frustrated by low-scoring performances, Keely has improved his ball-handling in the paint and his ability to knock down mid-range jumpers. The key difference between this season and those past is that Reggie Keely has become a threat to score rather than just an option.

The improvement of players like Keely is essential to Ohio’s game plan. As Groce said prior to the start of the season, the Bobcats want to threaten 94 feet as much as possible. As mentioned, Ohio has been all over the ball on defense and attacking the basket on offense – whether to score in the paint or kick it to a shooter. After leading the MAC in scoring last season, Ohio has increased the speed even more in 2011. The key to the high pace at which the Bobcats play is their depth. Groce uses at least ten players almost every game and each player contributes. In the past two games, Ohio has had at least four players scoring in double figures. In Sunday’s game against Arkansas State, Ohio’s bench tallied 29 points as compared to ASU’s zero.

For D.J. Cooper, 2011 has been business as usual. Cooper has lived up to his preseason All-MAC first team selection by averaging more than 15 points and just over six assists per game. The third-year point guard also notched his first double-double of the season in the season opener against Tennessee-Martin.

However, Cooper has seen his role not reduced but modified slightly with the addition of freshman point guard Stevie Taylor. Taylor’s presence has taken some of the burden off Cooper to run the team and, as he said in a press conference, Cooper likes having the freshman to come in and take some of the spotlight off him. When Groce really wants to kick the speed up a few notches, we have seen an interesting look from Ohio, having Cooper and Taylor on the floor at the same time. Thus far, it’s worked. It never hurts to have ball-handlers on the court and with both point guards on the floor, the ‘Cats have the freedom to push the pace and get out on the break.

When D.J. Cooper isn’t on the floor, Taylor has taken control of the offense and has become a floor general. For example, in Ohio’s overtime win over Lamar, Cooper started the game on a cold spell, shooting only 2-8 from the field in the first half. Much to the ‘Cats’ relief, Taylor picked up the slack with 11 first half points. That performance is telling of Taylor’s ability to lead the team. This is especially good news for the Bobcats when Cooper graduates after next season or decides to take his talents to the NBA after this season (professional basketball is always an option for a highly-touted point guard).

Whatever the case, through the first three games, Ohio has been able to count on someone to step up. The exciting thing about this Bobcats squad is the fact that the player or players to be the star of the game is never clearly defined. Anybody can be the hero on any given night when dealing with this Ohio team. Against Tennessee-Martin it was Reggie Keely, against Lamar it was Stevie Taylor, and against Arkansas State it was Nick Kellogg. Offutt and Cooper have been stars throughout. Jon Smith has earned his starting spot with solid defense and a handful of points.  Ricardo Johnson and TyQuane Goard have provided valuable minutes off the bench. John Groce must be one happy man.

As mentioned, though, the season is still young. Ohio has 27 games left on the schedule including a long Mid-American Conference run. Friday’s game against Louisville will be a real test of Ohio’s ability to perhaps see if they are a real NCAA tournament contender. As fans have seen over the past few years, anything is possible once we reach March. However, Groce and his players understand that in order to become a bracket-buster (á la 2009-10), the Bobcats must take this season one game at a time.

With a win Friday, Ohio’s potential will become a reality and John Groce will have a “good” team on his hands. Regardless of the outcome, however, this Ohio team is easily one of the most exciting teams in the MAC. Using the 3-0 start as a basis for argument, the remainder of the season is sure to have many folks from the third ring of Saturn getting agitated.