By Bob DiCesare

If the Mid-American Conference qualified more than one team for the NCAA Tournament then Ohio University’s so-so start to the season might be cause for alarm. But given the realities of life in the MAC, there’s little reason for the faithful to fret that the Bobcats head into Wednesday’s conference opener against visiting University at Buffalo three games behind last year’s torrid pace.

Ohio (9-5) returned every player of note from a team that won 29 games last year before losing to North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen, and in overtime nonetheless.

Never mind that coach John Groce left for Illinois (where he’s working wonders) and former Kent State and TCU coach Jim Christian now holds the reins. Expectations are high in Athens, as they should be, and losses to the likes of Winthrop (at home) and Robert Morris (road) have reaped more intense scrutiny.

“To be honest with you, if you look at our 14-game numbers from this year to last year, the numbers are exactly the same almost statistically offensively and defensively,” Christian said during Monday’s MAC coaches teleconference. “We’ve gone on the road, and if you look at the home non-conference records of those teams, we’ve kind of challenged ourselves. For every one of those games there was a stretch that we just didn’t go out very well and you can’t do that when you go to the places that we go to.”

This year’s non-conference schedule is more ambitious than it was a year ago, when Ohio was 12-2 heading into the conference opener. Plus the Bobcats aren’t sneaking into games under the radar. Last year’s storied run makes it easy for opposing coaches to sell their players on Ohio’s capabilities.

“We understand it and I think our players now get to understand when you have a target on your back you better play for 40 minutes and you better play as hard as you can play,” Christian said. “It’s a lesson you got to learn. Hopefully we’ve learned that moving forward.”

UB (5-9) catches the Bobcats coming off perhaps their best effort of the season. Guard D.J. Cooper (he’s finally a senior) had 13 of his school-record 17 assists in the first half of Saturday’s 94-57 destruction of non-conference rival Marshall.

“It was a good win because we played the right way,” Christian said. “My whole point to the team was … not listen to anybody or your own excuses and just go out and do your job. And I thought for the 40 minutes we did our job.”

Cooper is tied for second nationally in assists at 8.5 a game while senior forward Reggie Keely tops the country in field goal percentage at 69.9.

The Bobcats won all three meetings with UB last year, the last a 77-74 triumph in the MAC Tournament semifinals. The Bulls (5-9) lost four seniors off that team and have been further challenged by the loss of point guard Jarod Oldham (broken wrist) at least until March. Freshman guard Stan Wier still wasn’t practicing with the team last week after undergoing summertime surgical procedures on his knees and it’s increasingly likely he’ll redshirt even if he gets back on the practice floor.

UB returns from Ohio to play its MAC home opener on Saturday night against Miami (5-7).

In the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, both Canisius and Niagara hit the road this week carting a share of the league lead. The Griffs (10-5, 3-1) are at Siena (2-13, 0-4) on Friday and then have what could be a wild Sunday afternoon showdown with Iona (9-6, 3-1). The two are tied for second in the nation with 143 treys.

The Gaels are 10th nationally in socring at 81.3 points. Lamont (MoMo) Jones sits fourth in the country at 22.7 points per game while Sean Armand is fifth in three-point field goals with 56. Griffs guard Isaac Sosa is 16th in field goals (44) and the Griffs are 14th in shooting percentage from behind the arc at 40.1.

Niagara (7-7, 3-1) opens the week tonight with a non-conference game at Brown (4-8) before shifting back to the MAAC. The Purple Eagles are at Saint Peter’s (6-8, 1-3) on Friday before Sunday’s rematch with Fairfield (10-6, 2-2).

Meanwhile, St. Bonaventure (7-6) gets its first taste of the “new” Atlantic 10 this week. The Bonnies open conference play Wednesday at George Washington (6-7) and return to Olean Saturday afternoon to face Virginia Commonwealth (12-3). Troy Daniels ranks second in the country with 64 treys for VCU, which fell one spot outside the Top 25 in this week’s Associated Press poll.

Free throws

UB sophomore forward Will Regan leads the country in three-point shooting percentage. He’s made good on 18 of 30 from behind the arc, a sizzling 60 percent clip. Other Big 4 players in the Top 50 nationally: Niagara guard Antoine Mason is 43rd in scoring (18.3) and UB forward Javon McCrea is 38th in blocks (2.29). … Niagara junior Skylar Jones was not in attendance for the team’s two home games last week for what was described as “personal reasons.” Jones has rarely seen the floor for the Purple Eagles this season and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him transfer out.