ATHENS, Ohio -- “Honor the Process, The Journey” was the theme from Ohio coach John Groce just before a recent practice with his defending MAC tourney champs.
Last season, the Bobcats became the lowest conference seed, at No. 9, to win the MAC tournament. Then, instead of over-celebrating their surprise championship, they simply went back to work and crushed No. 3 seed Georgetown 97-83 in the NCAA tournament.
Now Ohio has been voted by the coaches as the preseason favorite. But if the Bobcats are to become "THE TEAM" in the MAC, they need to figure out a way to replace the offensive production of Armon Bassett. That is a tough task as Bassett averaged 29.6 points per ga,e during the five-game postseason win streak.
D.J. Cooper (13.5 ppg, 5.4 rebounds per game, 5.9 assists per game, 2.5 steals per game) is back and he is even better. The lefty point guard can shoulder-slant past you on the dribble and convert. I love his feathery fadeaway and he has the strength and balance to create shot-space, even from the 3-point line. He makes hard shots look easy and he will certainly pick up some of the scoring slack as a scorer and passer.
Clearly Cooper is the leader of this team as a sophomore and will get serious consideration for player of the year honors.
DeVaughn Wahington, a 6-8 senior, also showed improvement in practice. He has added an elbow J to his offensive repertoire and that ability to face and score will add dimensions to his already considerable athletic ability. Washington is a big-time fullcourt runner. He can out run anybody and when he does he can finish in entertaining fashion. He is one of the best in the MAC at running the floor and also going and getting offensive rebounds. He seems stronger and more self-assured defensively. That is bad news for the rest of the MAC.
Tommy Freeman could shoot last season (47.7 percent from 3-point range) and there is no reason to believe he can’t make shots this season -- although Bassett’s offensive game did give him more space last season. It will be interesting to see if Freeman can continue to get quality looks.
The fate of this Ohio team will be decided by the rest of the players. Ivo Baltic, a 6-8 sophomore, caught my eye with a variety of successful scoring opportunities in their intrasquad scrimmage. If he learns to guard and is willing to rebound, he becomes an X-factor. And Reggie Keely showed defensive prowess and might be the perfect complement to Baltic at the 4 spot.
If you ask me, Ohio looks like a contender again. But will it take until March again to figure it all out?