Bobcats, Pioneers set to face off in first round of NIT

Even though they were denied access into the NCAA Tournament and were 0-3 against the Akron Zips, D.J. Cooper and company have one last chance to showcase their talent in March.

The No. 6 seed Ohio Bobcats (24-9) will look to make another deep tournament run when they travel to Denver to take on the No. 3 seed Pioneers (21-9) of the Western Athletic Conference tonight at 9:15 p.m. at Magness Arena.

“It’s a tough place,” Ohio coach Jim Christian said. “They are really good at home. You are not defending individual players. It’s easier in a short turnaround to get ready for a couple of guys that have a couple of strengths. When you are defending a whole system in one day, for an hour and fifteen minutes, it’s pretty tough to do.”

Last Saturday night, after defeating the Western Michigan Broncos in the semifinals, it only seemed right that the one team standing between Ohio and a third MAC Tournament title in four years was their nemesis, Akron.

Ohio took a 29-26 lead into halftime, thanks in large part to senior forward Reggie Keely’s 14 points. Then, everything unraveled for the ‘Cats. They shot 0-of-12 from three-point range in the second half, and Cooper finished with three points in their devastating 65-46 loss in Cleveland.

Despite the loss and a 0-7 record against teams in the RPI top 100, the Green and White received an at-large invitation to the National Invitational Tournament, where they will take on a Pioneers squad that wants to make up for a poor showing in their own conference tournament.

“Obviously everybody wants to play in the NCAA Tournament but its arrogance to think that you are in something that’s beneath you,” Christian said. “Butler played in the National Championship and was in the CBI (College Basketball Invitational) the following year and played hard as hell. If you are a basketball player and you love to play basketball, what difference does it make? Be thankful you are playing in a postseason tournament that’s relevant, that has great history and you’re still playing basketball. A lot of teams have put balls away for the year. If you love to play, it’s not an issue.”

Coming into their conference tournament as the No. 2 seed with a 16-2 conference record, Denver crashed out in sensational fashion to No. 7 seed Texas State 72-68 in the quarterfinals. Before the defeat, the Pioneers had won 10 games in succession.

For the Bobcats to survive and advance, they will have to find a way to contain Denver’s Princeton offense, something Christian speaks very highly of.

“Whether they play the Lakers or whether they play Ohio, it’s going to be the same type of style,” he said. “It’s going to be long possessions, grind-it-out type of possessions. You got to kind of be alert. It’s one of those offenses that if you are not focused and alert, they take advantage of it. That’s the challenge for us.”

Junior forward Chris Udofia leads the Pioneers with 12.9 points per game and 3.4 assists per game. Sophomore guard Royce O’Neale averages 11.4 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game, while sophomore guard Brett Olson averages 11.3 points per game for Denver.

The Bobcats will also need to control the glass. The Pioneers rank last in the country with 25.0 rebounds per game. Big men Ivo Baltic, Jon Smith and Keely will have the advantage as Denver plays a small lineup. The less second chance points Ohio allows, the better chance they will have of advancing to the second round.

Redshirt senior guard Walter Offutt added his thoughts on the outcome of tonight’s game.

“Whoever comes to play, whoever tries to get their mind ready to play. That’s who will probably be the winner,” he said.

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