Defense carries Bobcats to MAC’s upper echelon

Ohio wasn’t winning the way it thought it would when the season began.

Even so, the Bobcats were winning nonetheless. Ohio (17-4, 5-2 Mid-American Conference) owned the MAC’s best overall record and trailed league-leading Akron (6-1) by just one game through Jan. 29.

How Ohio had put itself into that position, with 10 games remaining, was the interesting part. The Bobcats were supposed to have the firepower to outscore the opposition this season. Instead, Ohio had morphed into one of the MAC’s better defensive clubs.

Ohio had allowed 70 or more points just three times this season, and it had given up fewer than 60 points 10 times in 2011-12. The Bobcats were allowing an average of just 60.4 points in conference games.

The defense had been key, as the Bobcats continued to struggle offensively. Ohio didn’t break 60 points in recent wins over Western Michigan and Ball State, for example. The Bobcats had won four games this season when shooting below 40 percent.

Ohio coach John Groce believe the offense will bounce back and start to resemble the free-flowing, shot-making club Ohio proved to be during the bulk of the nonconference schedule. But until then, the ‘Cats now have the confidence to know they can win even if the majority of their shots aren’t finding the bottom of the net.

It will be important down the stretch, as defense often translates better on the road than offense. Ohio will play six of its final 10 games on the road, and it will need to steal a couple in order to challenge Akron for the top seed in the MAC tournament.

The Bobcats themselves are starting to embrace being a gritty, defensive-first club.

“It’s just one of those things that happen. Last year we were a great offensive team and our defense was a liability,” junior guard Walter Offutt said. “Now it’s flipped. I guess that’s the cliche of defense wins games. That’s what happening.”

NOTES, QUOTES

Baltic firing bricks from foul line

–Junior PF Ivo Baltic, one of the most consistent scorers for Ohio this season, had reached double figures in 11 of the past 12 games through Jan. 29. Baltic also was shooting north of 50 percent from the field this season.

However, there was reason to be concerned Baltic won’t be able to snap out of one skid: at the free-throw line. Baltic was hitting just 51.3 percent of his free throws this season, and he appeared to bottom out in that regard Jan. 28.

After an alley-oop dunk off an inbounds play, Baltic flexed for the TV camera after drawing a foul on the play. He subsequently air-balled the free throw. Later, Baltic banked in a free throw high off the glass.

Baltic seemingly solved foul shooting last season when he hit 78.3 percent of his attempts. He seems to have reverted form to his freshman season, when he sank 50 percent from the foul line.

–Junior PG D.J. Cooper had a string of eight straight games with at least 13 points snapped against Ball State on Jan. 28. Cooper finished with just six points on 1-of-7 shooting.

It was just the third time this season Cooper failed to reach double figures, and it was his lowest point total of the season.

It wasn’t all negative, however. Cooper had six assists in the game, his highest assist total since he handed out seven assists in three straight games from the end of December through early January.

–Sophomore C Ethan Jacobs played three minutes against Ball State, the first time this season Jacobs was put into a game in the first half.

Jacobs earned his shot for two reasons: He was working hard in practice, and freshman PF TyQuane Goard was in the doghouse.

Ohio coach John Groce said after the game that “attitude and effort are non-negotiable” but declined to mention specifically whom Jacobs may have passed on the bench to get the look in the first half.

Goard had been trending upward, but he traded shouts with an Ohio assistant on the floor during the Bobcats’ win over Western Michigan on Jan. 25. Goard had played just one minute in each of the past two games through Jan. 29.

BY THE NUMBERS: 31.7 percent — In home wins over Western Michigan and Ball State, Ohio played lock-down defense. The Broncos and Cardinals combined to shoot just 33 of 104 from the field in the two games for a combined shooting percentage of 31.7 percent.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “This was another game that I don’t think we would have been able to win last year.” — Ohio coach John Groce, after the Bobcats’ 59-55 win over Ball State on Jan. 28.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK’S GAMES:

–at Northern Illinois, Feb. 1

KEY MATCHUPS: By any metric, the Huskies may be the worst team on Ohio’s schedule this season. NIU (2-17) has just one win over a Division I opponent this season, and it recently booted leading scorer Tim Toler from the roster. Ohio should be able to exploit the Huskies for plenty of turnovers. PF Ivo Baltic is looking forward to the matchup; he had a career-high 31 points in the game last season in Athens.

–vs. Central Michigan, Feb. 4

KEY MATCHUPS: The Chippewas have one of the conference’s best swingmen in sophomore Trey Zeigler (16.1 ppg through Jan. 29), and they stunned the Bobcats 91-85 last season in Mount Pleasant. CMU’s up-tempo pace won’t be an issue for Ohio, which forces more turnovers than any other team in the conference.

FUTURES MARKET: Sophomore Ricardo Johnson continues to demand more minutes with his play.

In Ohio’s past two games through Jan. 29, the 6-foot-5 guard/forward hybrid has been a key component off the bench. Johnson averaged 8.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.5 steals.

Besides his defense, Johnson has been versatile. Against Western Michigan, he filled in for long stretches in place of starter Walter Offutt, who was sidelined with foul trouble,. In Ohio’s win over Ball State on Jan. 18, he played big minutes as Ohio countered the one-big, four-small lineup the Cardinals favored.

As he continues to develop his offensive game, Johnson has already established himself as the first perimeter sub off the bench.

PLAYER NOTES

–Sophomore SG Nick Kellogg is still trying to ride out his first real shooting slump of the season. In his past three games through Jan. 29, Kellogg was just 2-for-16 from 3-point range; he was shooting at a 49 percent clip from 3-point range before the slump.

–Sophomore SF T.J. Hall finally snapped his 3-point drought against Ball State. Hall had went seven straight games without a made 3-pointer before making one against the Cardinals. Hall, who had missed 14 straight from long range, last made a 3-pointer on Dec. 30 against Kennesaw State before dropping one in against Ball State.

–Freshman PG Stevie Taylor matched his point production from his previous three games by scoring three points against Ball State. Taylor was just 2-for-17 from 3-point range in his past nine games through Jan. 29, but he did connect from long range against the Cardinals. Taylor hadn’t scored more than three points in a game since. Dec. 20.