Ohio’s Offutt ready for final shot

Three stops, five years, countless friends, plenty of wisdom gained.

As almost any Ohio State player would hope to do, he played a big part in beating Michigan in the NCAA tournament, too. He just did it three years after leaving Ohio State.

Now, this is it for Walter Offutt. Finally. One more bus ride with his Ohio University teammates to Cleveland for the Mid-American Conference tournament, one more shot at the NCAA tournament and another flight, another chapter, another page in the scrapbook.

It’s been, in Offutt’s own words, “a journey.” A winding one. A fulfilling one.

Offutt has pegged coaching as his preferred career path, so this isn’t the last March he’ll deal with fleeting moments, fast-closing windows and small margins for error. But is his last as a player, and the last for the most successful senior class in Ohio University history.

D.J. Cooper and Company have pushed Ohio to two NCAA Tournaments in his first three years, and Offutt played more than a bit part as the Bobcats got to the Sweet 16 last year, making the steal and clinching free throws against Michigan, then leading the team with 21 points and 4 steals against South Florida.

As No. 2 seed Ohio (23-8, 14-2) prepares for its MAC tournament semifinal on Friday and, potentially, another season-defining and legacy-extending championship game the next night, reality has sunk in for Offutt. It’s here. One last shot.

“Experienced guys and big-time players step up at this time of the year,” Offutt said. “That’s how we got where we got last year, and we’re hoping to do it again this year.”

Last year was Offutt’s first real chance to play on college basketball’s biggest stage. He’d previously been busy on the move.

When he got to Ohio State, Evan Turner was just finding his groove. So, too, were Jon Diebler and William Buford, players who would go on to set school and Big Ten records. There was a logjam at Offutt’s position, to say the least.

Offutt averaged five minutes per game as a freshman at Ohio State. He decided to leave during his sophomore season, intending to head for New Mexico. He instead ended up at Wright State in Dayton, but following the 2010 season Wright State coach Brad Brownell left for Clemson, and Offutt decided to leave, too.

A long, long time ago, Offutt played at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis, in the same conference as Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. He thought about accepting a walk-on opportunity at Indiana, but then-Ohio coach John Groce, who had been an assistant at Ohio State when Offutt was recruited there, showed interest in bringing him to Athens.

He sat out 2010-11 as a transfer, and in going on two full seasons since he’s been a part of making school history.

“You’re 17 years old and you have a scholarship to Ohio State, you kind of think you have it all figured it out,” Offutt said. “I thought I was a step away from the NBA. I didn’t grow (physically). I made a choice to leave, then I made other choices I hoped would be best for me.

“A lot of things that happened that made me a better person. And I’m very grateful to have been able to play on the teams I’ve played on.”

Offutt averaged 12.4 points per game last year, shooting 38 percent on 3-point tries, and is averaging 10.9 percent and shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc this year, good enough to be named third-team All-MAC earlier this week. His contributions to both teams, though, have been greater than anything that can be measured on stat sheets.

His Ohio teammates voted him a captain before he ever played a game prior to last season. With a new coach coming in this season and essentially the same personnel returning, Offutt has been a steadying force.

“He absolutely sets an example for his teammates with the way he approaches everything,” Ohio coach Jim Christian said. “He’s been everything I could have hoped he’d be as a leader.”

In reflection on his journey, Offutt said he’s gained an appreciation for the commitment and sacrifice it takes not just to play college basketball, but to excel. He said upperclassmen learn “there’s a right way to handle your business,” and it’s their duty to pass along such lessons.

“The guys that prepare the best, and the guys that come together with their teammates and do the work, that bodes well for things like winning conferences and winning tournament games,” he said. “I was there at Ohio State with Coach (Thad) Matta and I don’t think it’s a secret or some magic how he’s won all those Big Ten titles.

“Guys learn that it’s not about individuals, and in some ways it’s not even about right now. I know the importance of being on time, of staying positive when things are down. This is about the future. I’m going to leave here with two degrees.”

Offutt said he’s always admired and enjoyed learning from his coaches and sees himself getting into coaching in the future.

“He’ll be a great coach,” Christian said. “He already is. He thinks if he was coaching this team, we’d be 16-0 (in the MAC).”

Ohio has known since December, essentially, that an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament was not a possibility. There’s one way a senior class that’s won 87 games in the last four seasons and 52 in the last two with Offutt eligible to play is getting back to the Big Dance, and that’s to win the MAC tournament this weekend.

The whole journey comes down to this. Offutt has been waiting.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that, as a team, if you do what you’re supposed to do, you’ll have a chance to win it at the end,” he said. “You can’t ask for any more.”