Surprising Ohio is the last of the little guys
For a few fleeting minutes Sunday evening, the possibility of a Sweet 16 without a single mid-major looked increasingly realistic.
Only then did 13th-seeded Ohio erase a five-point second-half deficit, blow past 12th-seeded South Florida and guarantee there will still be a dash of small-conference charm in the second week of the NCAA tournament.
South Florida had taken a five-point lead midway through the second half on a Jawanza Poland alley-oop slam when referees gave Poland a technical foul for hanging on the rim. Ohio's Nick Kellogg sank the two free throws and then buried a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, igniting a 17-4 Bobcats run that propelled them to a 62-56 victory and the program's first Sweet 16 since the field expanded to 64 teams.
Ohio's success stands out even more than usual because it hasn't been the norm among mid-major programs this March.
Fourteen of the other 15 programs in the Sweet 16 are from the six power conferences. The lone exception is Xavier, which hasn't been classified as a mid-major for years because of its charter flights, glitzy arena and large budget.
It's a bit surprising to see the mid-majors struggle this March after Final Four runs from Butler, VCU and George Mason in recent seasons, but there are a few factors that help explain it.
Top mid-majors such as Drexel, Middle Tennessee State and Nevada never received the opportunity to make a run after crashing out of their respective conference tournaments without securing an automatic bid. Then schools like VCU and Wichita State were paired against one-another in the opening round of the tournament. And finally, the small-conference programs that did win their opening games, such as Lehigh, VCU and Norfolk State, all couldn't sustain their success in the Round of 32.
Few expected Ohio to be one of the final 16 teams alive when the Bobcats drew Big Ten co-champ Michigan in the opening round. Ohio showed its prowess in the regular season by playing Louisville close, winning 27 games and capturing the MAC tournament, but the MAC last produced a Sweet 16 team a decade ago when Antonio Gates helped lead Kent State to the Elite Eight.
What has helped Ohio exceed expectations this week and earn a Sweet 16 date with top-seeded North Carolina is the pairing of guards D.J. Cooper and Walter Offutt. Cooper had 21 points in Ohio's upset victory over Michigan on Friday and Offutt followed that with 21 against stingy South Florida.
The last time a Sweet 16 didn't contain a single mid-major was 2009 when only Xavier and Gonzaga made it from leagues outside the power six. Thanks to Ohio, history did not repeat itself this year.