MMR: Bobcats find road comfort zone
Two seasons ago, junior D.J. Cooper and his equally homesick Ohio teammates couldn't wait to see family and friends over the holidays. But a road game against Pitt three days before Christmas delayed their plans.
The atmosphere rattled a young Bobcats team that featured seven newcomers. Cooper and Co. eventually went home, but not before suffering a 74-49 loss to the Panthers on Dec. 22, 2009.
"We were all freshmen. We were ready to get home," he told ESPN.com. "They just came out and put it on us. It seemed like nobody really cared."
This season's Bobcats (9-1), however, embrace the challenges of competing on the road. And they're not focused on eggnog and candy canes as they prepare for a matchup against Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls on Tuesday.
The Bobcats have won their past four road games. They have one blemish on their résumé: a 59-54 loss at Louisville on Nov. 25. In that game, the Bobcats held a six-point advantage in the final minutes but couldn't finish off the Cardinals, who are 10-0 and ranked fourth in the country.
Today, road wins are expected, said head coach John Groce. That's why the Bobcats' close loss to the Cards will never fall into the "moral victory" category.
"We went into that game with the expectation to win the game. We weren't in the locker room high-fiving each other because we lost by five to Louisville," Groce told ESPN.com.
They've won six straight since falling to the Cardinals, a streak anchored by wins at Marshall and Oakland. They have the No. 27 RPI, according to ESPN.com. And they're arguably the best team in a stacked MAC.
What's changed from two seasons ago? "We're just older. We have some older guys," Cooper said. "We know how to close out games better. We're more of a team. It's not about just stats."
That young team in 2009-10 played its way into the NCAA tournament and learned to strive in the hostile environments that no longer intimidate it.
Two years older, Cooper and the other members of that freshman class now possess an experience level that's enhanced their poise outside of Athens.
The latter is on display before players reach the court when they're on the road, Groce said.
"I don't even have to give them an itinerary," he said. "They know when we're practicing. They know what we're doing after practice. They know when we're leaving. We've got a routine that we feel comfortable with."
When he arrived in 2008, Groce faced numerous questions about the program's previous struggles on the road. The Bobcats were 2-13 away from their home floor in Groce's first season but gradually improved as he implemented his system and philosophy.
Groce inherited a veteran squad in his first season, but he relied on youngsters during the last two years. Although this season's roster lacks seniors, it's an experienced group that's led by four juniors who are the team's top scorers.
Groce said he trusts his team more than he did over the past two seasons because of its veteran leadership. "I just cut three segments out of practice [Monday]. I hardly ever do that," he said. "But we were locked in, we were dialed in. I wouldn't have done that the first three years."
Five individual performances you might have missed
• Zeke Marshall (Akron): The swat machine had 21 points and seven blocks in an 87-64 victory over Arkansas Pine-Bluff on Thursday. He also went 7-for-10 from the field. His 2.9 blocks per game rank 19th in the country.
• Kelvin Martin (Charleston Southern): The 6-foot-5 forward scored 13 points and grabbed 17 rebounds during an 88-69 win over the Citadel on Wednesday. Three days later, he tallied 16 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in a 70-68 loss to Charleston on Saturday.
• Darius Theus (Virginia Commonwealth): The junior guard recorded seven steals in the Rams' 87-64 win over UNC-Wilmington on Saturday. He also recorded eight assists. Theus is shooting 51 percent from the field this season.
• Brandon Davies (BYU): The 6-foot-9 big man recorded 18 points and 13 rebounds during an 86-83 home loss to No. 7 Baylor. His last-second 3-pointer, however, was blocked by Pierre Jackson. It was Davies' first double-double of the year. He was one rebound short of a double-double in three other games this season.
• Reggie Hamilton (Oakland): The senior guard hit the game winner in Oakland's 82-80 road victory over Valparaiso on Saturday. He also poured in a career-high 41 points (14-for-24) and finished with four steals. And when the team got back home, he carried players on his back and dropped them off one-by-one. (OK, I made up the last part.)
Five scores you might have missed
Davidson 80, Kansas 74 (Monday): No, Stephen Curry didn't suit up for a night. But Nik Cochran (21 points) and J.P. Kuhlman (15 points) were two of Davidson's four double-figure scorers who fueled the upset over the Jayhawks. Davidson held Kansas to a 26 percent clip from beyond the arc, and the Wildcats frustrated Tyshawn Taylor, who committed five turnovers.
South Florida 70, Cleveland State 55 (Monday): The Vikings squandered a chance to snatch a win from a struggling Big East opponent (the Bulls had lost three of four entering Monday's game). D'Aundray Brown, the team's leading scorer this season, recorded only nine points on 3-for-12 shooting. The loss snapped Cleveland State's five-game winning streak.
Oral Roberts 64, No. 9 Xavier 42 (Sunday): The Musketeers were missing three starters (including All-America candidate Tu Holloway), who were suspended for the game as a result of the melee against Cincinnati. Oral Roberts took advantage of Xavier's unfortunate circumstances. Dominique Morrison scored 19 points and Warren Niles added 15 points.
South Dakota State 92, Washington 73 (Sunday): And the Pac-12's problems continue. South Dakota State's Nate Wolters scored 34 points to lead a Jackrabbits squad that snapped Washington's 32-game nonconference home winning streak. The Huskies were 5-for-18 from the 3-point line.
Indiana State 61, No. 25 Vanderbilt 55 (Saturday): The Sycamores limited John Jenkins, the SEC's top scorer, to just 11 points. R.J. Mahurin, one of four players who topped double-digits for Indiana State, scored 14 points off the bench. Vanderbilt was 11-for-18 from the charity stripe and committed 15 turnovers.
Five games you don't want to miss
Ohio at Northern Iowa (Tuesday): A pair of powers from two of the top mid-major conferences will compete in Cedar Falls. Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley) is riding a nine-game winning streak. Ohio has won six straight since suffering a 59-54 loss at then-No. 7 Louisville on Nov. 25.
Butler at Gonzaga (Tuesday): The Bulldogs' win over Purdue on Saturday, via a last-second tip-in, fueled speculation that the two-time national runners-up have found their perennial mojo. Against a Gonzaga team oozing confidence after a weekend blowout of Arizona, we'll find out if Butler has some more magic left.
Saint Mary's vs. No. 7 Baylor (Thursday): The Gaels' at-large hopes would get a huge boost with a win over nationally ranked Baylor at the Las Vegas Classic. The battle of the Joneses -- St. Mary's Rob (15.1 points, 11.0 rebounds per game) and Baylor's Perry (16.2 points, 6.0 rebounds) -- should be interesting.
Northwestern at No. 21 Creighton (Thursday): The Bluejays recovered from a Dec. 10 road loss to St. Joe's with a pair of lopsided victories in their next two games. But a win over a one-loss Big Ten foe would boost their confidence just six days before their conference opener against Missouri State.
Milwaukee at No. 10 Marquette (Thursday): This intracity rivalry is an intriguing matchup for both teams. Marquette is coming off its first loss of the season. Will the Horizon League contenders pounce on a vulnerable (read: multiple injuries) Marquette squad?
The Mid-Major Power 15(Our weekly rankings of the nation's top mid-majors will not include the Mountain West, Conference USA or Atlantic 10). 1. Murray State (12-0) -- Yes, it's true. The Racers might not lose before the Big Dance. 2. Wichita State (9-2) -- The Shockers are top-50 nationally in points, rebounds and assists. 3. Harvard (9-1) -- Lone blemish came against a UConn team that could win the Big East. 4. Creighton (9-1) -- The Bluejays bounced back from their first loss with a pair of blowouts. 5. Saint Mary's (9-1) -- The Gaels have won seven in a row, and they get a shot at No. 7 Baylor. 6. Northern Iowa (10-1) -- The Panthers have a big opportunity at home against Ohio on Tuesday. 7. Gonzaga (7-2) -- The Bulldogs seemed motivated in a weekend whipping of Arizona. 8. Cleveland State (10-2) -- The Vikings scored just 55 points in a loss to South Florida on Monday. 9. BYU (8-3) -- The Cougars tussled with No. 7 Baylor until the final seconds on Saturday. 10. Davidson (7-3) -- The Wildcats upset No. 11 Kansas on Monday. 11. Ohio (9-1) -- The Bobcats have won their past four on the road entering their game at UNI on Tuesday. 12. Iona (9-2) -- The Gaels are 5-1 on the road so far. 13. Denver (9-2) -- The Pioneers have won three in a row since a Dec. 7 overtime loss to Iona. 14. Middle Tennessee State (10-2) -- The Blue Raiders topped Belmont in the Dec. 13 rematch. 15. Indiana State (8-2) -- Weekend upset of nationally ranked Vanderbilt showcased potential.
Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN