Cinderella stories are one major aspect of why March Madness is so special. Seeing double-digit seeds from smaller conferences defeat teams from the biggest conferences display the unpredictability of the tournament. During the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles and North Texas Mean Green have already become this year’s Cinderella stories, knocking off Ohio State and Purdue in overtime.
However, when looking at Saturday’s action in the round of 64, the Ohio Bobcats stand out as the Cinderella prospect and the mid-major team that can make a run into the second weekend of the tournament.
Ohio are no strangers to being a Cinderella as in two previous tournaments over the past 12 years, the slipper has fit for the Bobcats.
In 2010, 14th-seeded Ohio blew out the third-seeded Georgetown Hoyas 97-83 to make their mark in the tournament before losing 83-68 to the sixth-seeded Tennessee Volunteers in the second round. Two years later, guard D.J. Cooper led the 13-seeded Bobcats to a thrilling 65-60 win over the fourth-seeded Michigan Wolverines. The run would not stop there as in the second round, they dispatched the 12-seeded South Florida Bulls 62-56. While they dropped their Sweet 16 game against the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels in overtime 73-65, they became only the fifth 13 seed to ever make the Sweet 16, making them the darlings of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Ever since that magical run, Ohio has gone through some lean years. They have fallen short in the MAC Tournament and have not made the tournament since 2012. However, things changed for the 2020-21 season. They held their own against Illinois, one of the top teams in college basketball, losing only 77-75. They finished fifth in the MAC, then proceeded to get hot at the right time. After taking care of fourth-seeded Kent State 85-63, they took out the top two teams in the conference, beating Toledo (87-80) and Buffalo (84-69) to clinch their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012.
They are a 13 seed once again and will take on the defending national champions in the fourth-seeded Virginia Cavaliers on Saturday. With Virginia suffering from COVID issues along with offensive inconsistencies, Ohio is a popular upset pick and when looking at the lineup, it is clear as to why.
First, the team is led by Jason Preston, who has become one of the best stories in college basketball. After not getting recruited out of high school and having lost his basketball-loving mother, he enrolled at UCF as a regular student. He was then invited to an AAU tournament, where he worked his way up through the ranks and eventually, made his own mixtape and sent it out to teams. He got offers from Ohio and Longwood, choosing to take his talents to the MAC. His perseverance has paid off as against Illinois, he broke out with 31 points and for the regular season, he averaged 16.6 points per game (PPG), 6.8 rebounds per game and 7.2 assists per game. He is the most productive player on the team and in the MAC Tournament, he scored 19, 27 and 22 points to lead Ohio to a conference tournament championship.
Preston is supported with plenty of help as four other players average double-digit PPG with Dwight Wilson III, Ben Vander Plas, Ben Roderick and Lunden McDay average 14.9, 12.8, 12.4 and 10.3 PPG. Ohio has a well-rounded starting five that prevents Preston from having to solely carry the team to victory. Mark Sears provides 8.7 PPG off the bench to give the Bobcats a legit six-deep roster.
When looking at their team stats, they rank in the top 20 in three very key stats: points per game, field goal percentage and assists per game (APG). Ohio ranks 17th in PPG with 80.9, making them one of college basketball’s most dangerous offenses. On top of their electric scoring output, their shot selection is stellar, tying Belmont for the 18th-best FG% with 48.9%. Lastly, they excel at distributing and dishing the ball, ranking sixth in college basketball with 17.9 APG. Ohio has one of the best offenses in college basketball, making them a dangerous mid-major in the tournament.
While Ohio struggles to rebound the ball (tied with a few teams for 204th in rebounds per game), their offense is lethal and as long as they have their shooting touch on Saturday, they should be able to defeat Virginia and advance to the round of 32, even the Sweet 16 as they stack up well against Creighton and UC Santa Barbara. Watch out for the Ohio Bobcats as once again, the slipper will fit for them.