ATHENS, Ohio - It almost had to happen: Ohio emerged from the mid-major ranks to advance to the NCAA tournament's round of 16 last season, then lost its coach to a bigger-name school.But after John Groce moved on to Illinois, the school caught a break in its search for the successor, landing a proven Mid-American Conference coach in Jim Christian.How good of a hiring might this be? Let's put it this way: Ohio finished the 2012-13 season ranked 25th in the coaches' poll. The last MAC team to crack the Top 25 was Christian's 2007-08 Kent State team.So when the Bobcats (8-5) take on Marshall (7-7) at 2 p.m. today at the Convocation Center in Athens, Ohio, it will do so with a veteran coach as well as a veteran team. And by at least one account, Christian hasn't tried to reinvent this particular wheel."He's a good coach," said point guard D.J. Cooper. "He's got a lot of confidence in us. There's not too much difference in the coaching staffs, so it wasn't too hard to adjust. I'm extremely confident in what we're trying to do."Thundering Herd fans may recall Christian's Kent State teams, which made two NCAA tournament appearances and three trips to the National Invitation Tournament from 2002-08. Adding in the 2001-02 season, a 30-win season in which Christian was an assistant under Stan Heath, the Golden Flashes were 9-1 against the Herd when both teams were in the MAC.Heading into the 100th game of the MU-OU rivalry, Ohio holds a 53-46 lead and has taken the last two contests - a 65-64 win in the first round of the 2011 CollegeInsider.com Tournament and a 70-68 win on Nov. 30, 2011 in Huntington.The latter game wasn't close most of the way, though. The Bobcats led by 13 with 6:15 left before the Herd finished with a 16-5 flurry, even having a chance to tie on a guarded DeAndre Kane turnaround jumper at the buzzer.
Cooper finished with 11 points and 11 assists, and had several such games in the Bobcats' 29-8 season, which included NCAA tournament wins over Michigan and South Florida. He is fifth in the nation at 7.8 assists per game this season, with three double-doubles to give him 20 in his career.Averaging 14.3 points this season, Cooper has a reasonable chance to hit 2,000 points, 900 assists, 650 rebounds and 300 steals in his career, a quartet of numbers never reached in college basketball."He's the engine that makes them go, no doubt about it," said Marshall coach Tom Herrion. "He has the unique ability as a 5-10 or [listed at 6-foot] guard to impact the game in many ways - he can get 30 points, can get eight points and 12 assists, he can rebound. He's a dynamic player and has had a tremendous career. But they have more than D.J."That they do, as the Bobcats are loaded with five seniors, six juniors and all returning starters from a season ago. Those include familiar names such as Walter Offutt (11.9 points per game, 37.3 percent 3-point shooting), Reggie Keely (9.4 points, 67.6 percent field-goal shooting), Ivo Baltic (9.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 50.5 percent from floor) and Nick Kellogg (8.5 points). A wild card of sorts is Missouri transfer Kadeem Green, a 6-8 sophomore who became eligible last month."They're one of the most experienced teams in the country, coming off the Sweet 16," Herrion said. "Jimmy's done a good job taking them over." BRIEFLY: Herrion said Kane and Yous Mbao are making progress in their recovery from injury, and have resumed light practice. Both are doubtful, though, for today. ... Herrion and Christian crossed paths in the 2003 NIT, when Herrion's College of Charleston team downed Kent State 71-66.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.