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Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Jim Christian times Ohio return well

By Eamonn Brennan

Anything can happen in the NCAA tournament.

This is the undying, glorious truth about college basketball. Despite the huge differences in resources and opportunities afforded between the sport's elite Great Whites and mid-major minnows, once that big bracket is set, once the do-or-die games begin, anything -- OK, almost anything -- goes.

That's precisely why Jim Christian is loathe to talk about expectations in the lingua franca of March -- even as the new Ohio coach inherits a program that just a few months ago experienced its greatest March of all time.

"This is something I've already talked about with these guys," Christian said. "There's a very fine line in between a special, special season in the MAC -- which they had last year, getting to the Sweet 16 -- and nothing," Christian said.

Jim Christian
Jim Christian takes over an Ohio team with a lot of returning talent.
A deep NCAA tournament run is a powerful thing. It can make you forget the harsh realities of life as a mid-major: That one week in early March, your league's conference tournament may be the only thing that matters. It can also gloss over whatever came before it. The first example: Last season, Ohio finished 11-5 in the Mid-American Conference, third in its own division behind both Akron and Buffalo. Another example: Despite a 34-30 MAC record in four seasons at the school, John Groce was hired to replace Bruce Weber and resurrect Illinois basketball.

So it makes sense that Christian's long-term goals at Ohio are about fundamental solidity, about making sure the program -- to borrow a baseball metaphor from Kentucky coach John Calipari -- is always up to bat.

"Remember, we haven't won the MAC regular-season championship since 1996," he continued. "The only time Ohio's gone to the tournament is by winning the conference tournament. Obviously, at our level, that's a huge, important piece. But it's also a very difficult thing to do."

Still, there's no doubt Christian is taking over in Athens, Ohio, at a particularly opportune time. In D.J. Cooper, Walter Offutt and Nick Kellogg, Ohio is bringing back all three prongs of a backcourt that led it to wins over Michigan and South Florida -- and an overtime near-upset of North Carolina in the Sweet 16 -- in 2012.

And despite the five-loss conference record and the No. 13 seed, it wasn't totally fluky. (No offense to, say, Norfolk State.)

Cooper was one of the nation's peskiest perimeter defenders, and as a team the Bobcats forced opponents to turn the ball over on 26.4 percent of their possessions -- the second-highest figure in college hoops. They likewise ranked No. 3 in steals rate, No. 16 in opponents' 3-point field goal percentage and No. 41 in overall defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. These are all signs of a perimeter defense built to hassle and harass opposing guards, a trait that tends to come in handy in postseason play. (Just ask Trey Burke.)

That backcourt is back, as are starting forwards Reggie Keely and Ivo Baltic, alongside essentially every player of note from last year's dream season.

"We've got experience, and we've got great pieces back," Christian said. "And everybody's hungry."

There is surely some self-description in that statement, too. Christian's hiring at Ohio was also something of a personal homecoming, a return to a state and a conference where he has experienced his greatest basketball success. From 2002-03 to 2008, Christian was the head coach at Kent State. He went to three NITs and two NCAA tournaments, winning two conference titles and coach of the year awards along the way, and never notched fewer than 20 wins in any of his six seasons.

And then, like so many coaches do, Christian decided he wanted to take on an even greater challenge. In his case, that meant taking the job at historical basketball ne'er-do-well Texas Christian. TCU made some strides under Christian -- his final 18-win year was its best of the four, and the school's impending move to the Big 12 "had already opened doors we could never have opened before," he said -- but he ended his tenure with a 18-44 conference record and a 56-73 overall mark.

Things should be much more comfortable in the MAC. He knows the league, its geography and history, well. But surely most important are the relationships he maintains -- particularly with high school coaches -- from his days spent recruiting at Kent State, as well as during his time as an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, Miami (Ohio) and Western Kentucky.

"I know some guys and some guys know me," Christian said. "I don't have to go in and explain myself, and what my program is all about, to guys that have never seen me before. Maybe they had a kid in my program already. They know me."

That's why there were few hires in the 2012 offseason that made as much sense as Ohio's decision to hire Christian. The match of specific prior experience to a specific vacancy was practically seamless. It was, in short, an obvious fit.

But that's a statement about the long term, about Christian's desire to develop and sustain a program that, in a perfect world, wouldn't always need the MAC tournament to get into the Big Dance. It's about building a Bobcats outfit that could rightfully call itself a "top 15-top 25 program," as he described it.

But Ohio fans -- and, in a rare and unlikely turn, much of the attention of the national college hoops world -- will be focused on the here and now. That's a fact of life when you return so many key players from a trip to the Sweet 16. Fans will be hoping for a return, if not to the cusp of the Elite Eight, then at least the NCAA tournament.

"It's so tough at our level," Christian said. "You have to focus on one goal at a time. When you get the tournament, anybody can beat anybody, but to get there you've got to deal with each game's pressure at our level first.

"It's a lot of pressure on these kids. Imagine doing it at the highest level. But anybody can win. At some point, it's just about who's playing well."