When Ohio’s name popped up on CBS’s Selection Show in the space below Michigan, Wolverine fans came up with an abundance of jokes surrounding the irony of a real Michigan-Ohio matchup.
Since Michigan football coach Brady Hoke coined the term at his introductory press conference, fans and even members of the Wolverines’ athletic department — including Athletic Director Dave Brandon and basketball coach John Beilein — have deliberately left the “State” out of the school’s name.
It even prompted a comment from Bobcat men’s basketball coach John Groce.
“It is kind of disrespectful, but it is what it is,” Groce told USA Today in February. “You can’t control what other people say. You can only control what you’re doing on a daily basis. That’s how we operate here.”
But the connections between the Michigan and Ohio basketball programs run deeper than a jab at the Wolverines’ rival.
The two programs have many links, but perhaps none more important — strategically speaking — than Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander.
Alexander spent one season, 2007-2008, as a Bobcat assistant. He left Athens, Ohio, when Groce replaced former head coach Tim O’Shea.
Though none of the current players on Ohio’s roster were in college when O’Shea departed, Alexander moved on to coach at Western Michigan. For two years, as MAC rivals, Alexander’s Broncos dropped two of their three games against the Bobcats.
But the experience of going head-to-head against Groce and Ohio will give Alexander, who will likely handle game-planning duties leading up to Friday, a leg up.
Alexander’s link isn’t the only connection among Michigan’s staff. As a head coach at Richmond, Beilein coached against conference foe Xavier, where Groce was serving as an assistant under current Ohio State coach That Matta — one of Groce’s mentors.
Groce is also a friend of Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer. Both are graduates of Taylor University, and despite graduating 22 years apart, each played basketball for Taylor coach Paul Patterson.
And Groce’s connections to Michigan don’t stop there. During the one year Groce spent as an assistant at Butler in 2001, Wolverine assistant LaVall Jordan was an all-conference senior guard for the Bulldogs.
Some Michigan players are familiar with current Bobcats, too.
Senior guard Zack Novak remains close friends with redshirt junior guard Walter Offutt. Offutt, who transferred to Ohio from Ohio State, was an AAU teammate of Novak on the Indiana Elite.
Novak stays in regular communication with Offutt, and moments after finding out his tournament fate, he texted his friend.
“I actually congratulated him when they won (the MAC Championship) the other day — sent him a text saying, ‘Way to get in,’ ” Novak said. “I already have texted him since it came up (on the Selection Show). We talked a little bit.”
Their pleasantries Sunday evening began on a light matter — exchanging jokes from the movie Talladega Nights — but then things got down to business.
“(I) just told him congrats,” Novak said. “Personally, for him, he’s been through a lot. He’s gone through two knee surgeries, so I was just happy for him that he got to experience that. I just said, ‘See you in Nashville and let’s get after it.’ ”
Freshman point guard Trey Burke, an Ohio native, was heavily recruited by Ohio, and early in his high school career, he considered becoming a Bobcat. He took an unofficial visit to Athens, where he became acquainted with several current Ohio players, including Nick Kellogg — the son of basketball analyst Clark Kellog — and the Bobcats’ best player, DJ Cooper.
“I was considering them early on in my recruiting process,” Burke said. “The players were cool. … It was a nice campus. It was much smaller than here, but the coaches were cool.”
He’s also close friends with Bobcat freshman point guard Stevie Taylor, dating back to their elementary-school days. The two battled on the same court together throughout high schools — sometimes as teammates, and other times as rivals.
They competed against each other several times in high school, but on the AAU circuit, they were teammates on the All-Ohio Red team.
Taylor tweeted on Sunday night that he and Burke had already talked on the phone, and even Burke’s mom, Ronda, chimed in.
“You two knuckleheads can’t get away from each other, huh??” she tweeted at Taylor. “It’s going to be nice to see you both on the court.”
Despite being a heavy favorite, some analysts have said Michigan should be on upset alert. But with an abundance of connections between the two programs, Jordan warned that the Wolverines won’t be overlooking the Bobcats come Friday night.
“Needless to say there is a mutual respect with so much familiarity between all of us,” Jordan tweeted. “Our guys know they can PLAY & WE know they can coach!”