Mostly Majors In Men's Sweet Sixteen

Mar 19, 2012
Originally published on March 19, 2012 9:06 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are sorry to report that Lehigh is out of the NCAA tournament. They lost in the second round after a huge upset of Duke in the first. Murray State is gone, too.

But as the tournament gets down to 16 teams, one of those teams is Ohio University. Traditionally not one of the powerhouse teams we talk about year in, year out. In fact, it's been more than four decades - 48 years to be precise - since the school has made it this far in the tournament.

NPR's Mike Pesca reports on the team's quest.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: With 15 seconds left in Ohio's game against South Florida, Roderick McDavis is kneeling in the front row of Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. Not in prayer, but like a runner in the starting blocks.

RODERICK MCDAVIS: Come on, DJ. Let's punch this ticket.

PESCA: DJ Cooper, listed as 5'11, who stands level with this 6-foot tall reporter's eyebrows, is at the free throw line. His recently converted pair of free throws has just put his team up five, now he's trying to put the game out of reach. He misses the first but makes the second.

MCDAVIS: There it is. There it is. Ball game.

PESCA: Roderick McDavis is of course right. He does have a doctorate. In fact, he's Ohio University's president.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PESCA: Before the Bobcats overcame South Florida to earn a spot in the Sweet Sixteen, the Athens, Ohio school was best known as being the nation's number one party school, a title the president is not proud of, a designation guard Nick Kellogg refers to as a stigma.

But the student body has earned its reverie in no small part because the players have been careful not to do much celebrating of their own. Two years ago, the Bobcats pulled another tournament upset, but then lost by 15 in the next round. After last night's game, Ohio head coach John Groce mentioned one way he learned from his tournament experience.

JOHN GROCE: Two years ago, I really felt like after the first round win that I didn't do a very good job of helping them avoid distractions.

PESCA: So this year, after a few moments to tweet, text and return some calls, the coaching staff confiscated the team's phones.

GROCE: Not one guy, and that's how I knew this team's really locked in, not one single guy complained.

PESCA: Groce did not take this team to the regional semifinals on telecom blackouts alone. He's a basketball lifer, a former assistant to Thad Matta at Ohio State, a former colleague of Sean Miller now of Arizona, and Butler's Brad Stevens.

GROCE: And I owe those guys a lot. Many of those guys are on what I call my advisory board now, you know. Guys I talk to a lot still - Sean, Thad, Brad. I talk to Brad a lot, you know, bounce ideas off of him. So I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I mean that's a heck of an advisory board.

PESCA: From Matta, he learned how to perform against the top level of competition. Stevens and Groce often discuss the intricacies of statistics, giving rise to comments like this from DeVaughn Washington, who was among a group of former players at last nights game.

DEVAUGHN WASHINGTON: Oh, man. Coach Groce is a genius, man. That's all. He's just a genius.

PESCA: Ohio's current roster is the usual island of misfit toys that characterize mid-major programs. The guard that was too short in Cooper and the blue chip player who transferred out of a big to school to get playing time, Walter Offutt. Ohio's other starters typically ranked 50th to 70th best at their position when coming out of high school, but they've learned, grown and matured.

Their next opponent, the University of North Carolina, has a roster entirely composed of the type of four and five-star recruits who would never consider an Ohio school that didn't have the word state after it. Facing the Tarheels is no party, which this particular group of Ohio undergrads is fine with.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.