Justice Is Served

March 14, 2010 12:10 AM

Young 'Cats prove they're ready for 'Big Dance'


Not these Ohio Bobcats, no way. They weren't supposed to contend for much of anything this season. They were too young - too unschooled in the ways of Mid-American Conference hoops.

So coming into the MAC tournament, no one thought much of Ohio's chances of being the last team standing. The Bobcats were the No. 9 seed, a little-regarded team with a roster stocked with youth.

Contend for the conference title and its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament?

Not these 'Cats.

Next season, maybe. Next season for sure. Coach John Groce would have them ready then. Yes, they'd be ready next season.

For sure.

But the young often have a way of surprising when pushed into a corner where their pride and testicular fortitude are tested. The young have two choices: grow into manhood quickly or make excuses for their shortcomings.

You heard no excuses from the Bobcats. They chose to grow up in front of people's eyes; they chose to reach for the MAC title now - to reach for it and grab it, squeezing it in joy: the joy that comes from achieving something special and grand. And they did.

Next season, of course, might not have the grand prize awaiting them. Who's to say? It might hold only disappointment and despair: injuries, academic failings, roster turnover, discontent. It happens all the time when too much is banked on the future and not on the present.

The present held too much promise for the Bobcats.

Armon Bassett, C.J. Cooper, Tommie Freeman, DeVaughn Washington and their teammates had already performed better than anybody expected a No. 9 seed stocked with underclassmen to perform.

They had beaten three higher seeds. Now, the 'Cats were in the championship game Saturday night - an overachieving ninth seed at that - and a win away from a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Win? They couldn't win, could they? They couldn't beat Akron, a 24-win team and the No. 2 seed. Not this season, could they?

Next season, for sure.

Yeah, next season.

Next season will have its own challenges and its own rewards for these young 'Cats, but those rewards, whatever they might end up being, can't be any more satisfying than the rewards that came out of this one.

For when the last second ticked off the scoreboard clock, the numbers that mattered most read: Ohio U. 81, Akron 75.

Next season - and its great expectations -- had arrived months early. It came bearing medals and an invitation to a place it didn't seem these Bobcats would go. Not this season.

"For us to be here right now is just amazing," said Bassett, a junior and the tournament MVP.

His sentiments weren't his alone. Amazing, yes. Surprising, yes. Unexpected, yes to that, too.

Yet those sentiments were real. They reflected what young athletes feel when they find themselves riding to the top of the rollercoaster. They surely must know the ride upward can't last forever - not for a No. 9 seed.

But do they dare think it won't? They had already beaten long odds. Why can't they continue?

No reason to think about that now. They have tomorrow for that and the next day and the next day and the next day ... many days until they take the court and face another challenge. They win and they keep playing - playing until they win the biggest prize of all.

Amazing ... it would be amazing and a lot more if a No. 9 seed from a mid-major could win until the final game of this college basketball season. Amazing, unexpected and improbable ... for a team so young and so unpolished.

They had grown up, though. They had speeded up their maturation, doing now what they weren't expected to do until next season. They were MAC champs, No. 9 seed and all.

The Bobcats are heading into the NCAA Tournament, a spot with their name on it written into the 65-team bracket. Their name is there now, not next season when they will be older, wiser and more ready to win big - a team with more than an ugly No. 9 seed in tow.

Talk about next season will have to start later, because this season has a lot left for the Bobcats to talk about. They have at least one more dance left, a dance that began on a court in Cleveland when these 'Cats surprised three MAC teams with loftier pedigrees.






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