ST. LOUIS (AP) — Ohio is happy to make room for anyone who wants to jump on the bandwagon.
Just don't expect the Bobcats (29-7) to buy into that whole lovable underdog thing.
Yes, they realize they're the 13th seed, the only "little guy" left in a tournament that now looks like a who's who of college basketball. They're well aware it would take them another century or two to match top-seeded North Carolina's tradition — they're in the regional semifinals for the second time, while the Tar Heels have lost count of how many times they've been here.
But they don't much care.
"Nobody in our locker room feels like we're a Cinderella team," D.J. Cooper said Thursday. "We feel like we can compete with anybody on the national stage."
Even North Carolina (31-5), their opponent Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal.
"They played some big-time opponents and haven't been concerned about the name on the front of the jersey," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "They have just played."
It would be easy to stereotype Ohio as one of those plucky little schools that catches a hot streak and a little bit of luck, but the Bobcats don't look a whole lot different than they did during the regular season. Sure, their 3-point percentage is markedly better than it was during the regular season, as is their free throw percentage.
But Ohio has been playing the same type of nasty, pressure defense all year. Just ask Louisville, which needed a furious rally at the end of the game to hold off the Bobcats 59-54 back in November.
Ohio is forcing more than 17 turnovers a game, and ranks fourth in the country in steals (9.3). Opponents are averaging just 62 points, and the Bobcats have held 10 to 55 or fewer. South Florida, another Big East member, was held to 56 in the third round.
Offensively, no one's figured out a way to contain the silky smooth Cooper, who averaged 20 points, six assists and four rebounds in Ohio's first two tournament games.
"D.J. Cooper of course, because he's really a gifted kid who, the last couple games, has really been dominant for them," Williams said when asked what concerns him most about Ohio. "But they're really a good basketball team. They guard you, they take the ball away from you, they rebound the basketball."
Adding to the challenge is North Carolina likely will be without dazzling point guard Kendall Marshall, who had surgery Monday to insert a screw in the right wrist he broke when he was fouled on a drive against Creighton last Sunday. The cast is off Marshall's wrist, but he is still wearing a brace, hasn't practiced and said Thursday that if the game were that night, he wouldn't be able to play.
"We have planned as if he's going to play, and then obviously you got to have some type of contingency plans in your mind in terms of adjustment of offensive and defensive strategy," Ohio coach John Groce said. "But it does make it difficult because, obviously, he makes them a different team."
With Dexter Strickland, Marshall's backup, out since January with a knee injury, that leaves the Tar Heels with freshman Stilman White or Justin Watts. White, described by Williams as "a wacko," appears to be the more likely option.
Though White has played in all but four of North Carolina's games, he's logged double-digit minutes only once. He's scored 23 points and dished out 19 assists, numbers Marshall comes close to matching in one game.
"Kendall thinks three plays ahead. Stilman's still trying to think he's got both shoes tied," Williams said. "There's such a contrast. But Stilman's got a little toughness to him, he really does."
And White, or whoever Williams puts on the floor, will be fine, Marshall said.
"Basketball is still going to go on with or without me," said Marshall, who sat at the side of the court cradling a basketball while his teammates ran drills during Thursday's open practice. "We're excited to go out and compete, and we've put ourselves in position to be successful whether or not I'm playing."
The one spot where North Carolina has a decided advantage — well, aside from those five national titles and NCAA-record 18 Final Four appearances — is inside. Ohio has only one player above 6-8, and the 6-foot-10 Ethan Jacobs has appeared in only one game in the last month. The Bobcats get about 34 rebounds a game, and no one player averages more than five a piece.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have three starters 6-8 or taller, including the 7-foot Tyler Zeller. North Carolina averages 44 rebounds per game, with Zeller and John Henson grabbing 10 each.
But even that doesn't faze the Bobcats.
"We've got a lot of guys averaging five rebounds a game," Reggie Keely said. "If rebounding is very spread out between our team, everybody contributes in that area, then I think as long as we do that, we should be all right."
That kind of confidence is what makes a school like Ohio so dangerous, the Tar Heels said.
"They're playing more confident," Henson said. "Even in practice, when our guys are running their offense, it's tough to guard. So it's going to be a challenge and we're going to play hard and see what happens."
Follow Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour