After Michigan upset, Ohio relying on defense for deep March run
NASHVILLE -- When it became a certainty in the waning seconds that their 13th-seeded team was going to pull off an upset, the green-clad fans of Bridgestone Arena began a loud and proud chant: "WE ... ARE ... OHIO!"
Michigan's football coach, Brady Hoke, perennially refers to nemesis Ohio State solely as "Ohio." On Friday, the actual Ohio -- Ohio University -- took down the Wolverines' hoopsters.
"Ohio State is 'The Ohio State', and we're Ohio University," said Bobcats point guard D.J. Cooper, whose 21 points helped lift his team to its second NCAA tournament upset in three years, 65-60. "Hopefully they'll show us a little respect now."
On paper, this was a fairly significant upset -- the third-place team from the MAC East taking down the Big Ten's regular season co-champions. In reality, there was an air of nonchalance to the whole thing, perhaps in part because it paled in comparison to the pair of No. 15 seeds -- Norfolk State (over Missouri) and Lehigh (over Duke) -- that pulled off bona fide shockers on the very same day.
But it was also because this was something of a rerun. Two years ago, then-freshman Cooper scored 23 as No. 14 seed Ohio drilled No. 3 seed Georgetown, 97-93. This one was closer throughout, with the Bobcats (28-7) leading by single digits throughout the second half, and the Wolverines (23-10) pulling within three, 63-60, in the final minutes. But other than briefly raising his arms to the crowd after a fatal Michigan turnover with seven seconds remaining, Ohio players didn't seem much more excited than they would after a February victory against Kent State.
"[Beating Georgetown] gave us a little confidence knowing we could play with a high major team that you always see on TV," said Cooper. "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."
They might if they play the kind of defense they did Friday.
Michigan made just 7-of-23 three-pointers (30.4 percent), including 4-of-12 in the second half, in large part because Ohio's defense prevented the Wolverines from getting closer looks. Late in the game, Michigan's offense essentially consisted of star freshman point guard Trey Burke dribbling down the shot clock, then uncorking a long three from the top of the key. A couple went down, allowing the Wolverines to cut a nine-point deficit with 8:11 left to a three-point margin, 63-60, with 4:12 left.
From that point forward, however, Michigan did not score another point. Burke missed four straight three-pointers, the Wolverines missed six straight field goals and the Bobcats notched both a blocked shot and, with seven seconds left, a game-sealing Walter Offutt steal.
To counter Michigan coach John Beilein's Princeton-like motion offense, Ohio coach (and former Ohio State assistant) John Groce and his staff concocted a game plan in which it would constantly rotate four defenders from position to position. Michigan shooters like Burke and Zach Novak seemed flustered as they encountered a new face across from them nearly every time they went to shoot.
"It's not like I waved a magic wand for this game," said Groce, citing his team's top-15 national ranking in three-point percentage defense. "They're so good on offense and [Beilein] is such a good coach, if you give them a steady diet of anything they're going to pick you apart. So we changed up coverages during the game ... and I'll be honest with you, over the course of 40 minutes, I don't know if we busted a coverage one time."
Michigan's Novak said the Wolverines got "out-executed," but he wasn't referring solely to Ohio's defense. For much of the game, Michigan struggled to contain Cooper, the Bobcats' slick, diminutive (5-foot-10) floor general who seems to be constantly running somewhere, either with the ball or without it. The two-time All-MAC player shot just 35 percent on the season but made 7-of-11 attempts Friday, including 3-of-6 from behind the arc.
"Coop's been playing spectacularly the last three games, in the MAC tournament, tonight," said teammate Nick Kellogg. "We need him to continue to play at that high level. He thrives in these situations."
All of the Bobcats play with an air of confidence belying their mid-major status. Perhaps that's because many of them have some connection to the elite.
Offutt, their top defender, is a transfer from Ohio State, having played high school and AAU ball with Wolverines Novak and Stu Douglass. Kellogg is the son of CBS broadcaster and former Ohio State standout Clark Kellogg (he even talks like him). And Cooper is simply a high-level player relegated to a mid-major league almost entirely because of his size (or lack thereof).
"He's a spectacular talent," Groce said of Cooper. "... At the same time he's a risk taker. I knew that when I recruited him, and ... 80 to 90 percent of the time, he makes me look good."
After seemingly outsmarting Beilein, Groce may be the next mid-major coach to see his name start circulating for other jobs -- especially if the Bobcats can make it to the second weekend. They have the defense to do it, and they talk and walk like they already have.
"It's an upset due to the numbers," forward Reggie Keely said of Friday's win, "but we don't look at it like that."
By the numbers, it was a 13 seed beating a 4 seed. To the eyes, it was a smart, veteran defensive team silencing a more immature, three-point reliant Wolverines team.
It was Ohio -- the Ohio -- beating Michigan.