For Jeff Boals and John Groce, the COVID-19 pandemic hit home in Cleveland nearly nine months ago.
Their teams, the Ohio Bobcats and Akron Zips respectively, were about to tip off in the quarterfinal round of the 2020 MAC Tournament. But during pregame warm-ups, both teams were pulled off the floor for temperature checks. Minutes later, the MAC announced the cancelation of the tournament.
“I knew that wasn’t a good sign,” Boals said Monday about that Thursday afternoon in March.
The NCAA followed suit, and eventually the entire sporting world. And the entire country has been dealing with the pandemic ever since.
The Bobcats and Zips finally face off on Tuesday in the MAC opener both sides for the 2020-21 season in a 2 p.m. start at James A. Rhodes Arena. And while this particular rivalry game is back, the pandemic never left.
Akron (2-1) has played just three games this season after positive tests put the Zips on the shelf for essentially the first month of the season. The game will be Akron’s fourth in a 10-day span, with the ‘season opener’ coming on Dec. 12. The Zips’ regularly scheduled MAC opener, with Kent State, was postponed because of COVID issues with the Golden Flashes.
Boals said Monday that other than one false positive test his Bobcats have dodged any virus issues in house. Nonetheless, the nonconference schedule has been a hit-or-miss affair. Ohio (4-2) hasn’t played since a Dec. 13 loss at Marshall.
“We’re missing just repetition and getting that game conditioning. It’s tough to replicate that, the competition,” Boals said. “It’s tough to take a week off, let alone nine days until your next game.”
In March, Ohio was the late-season riser and had hoped to stun Akron – the regular-season champion – with a tournament upset. Now the roles are reversed. The Bobcats begin MAC play as a contender, and the Zips are a bit of an unknown.
Akron, now in year four under former OU coach John Groce, has had substantial roster turnover. But the Zips return reigning MAC Player of the Year in senior guard Loren Cristian Jackson and refilled the cupboard with three high-major transfers in wings Maishe Dailey (Iowa), Michael Wynn (Wake Forest) and Taylor Currie (Wisconsin).
Wynn and Currie have yet to make an impact, but Jackson – a 5-8 dynamo – has picked up where he left off a year ago and is averaging 25.0 points and 8.7 assists per game.
“Multi-level threat offensively. He can score from deep…he’s crafty off of ball screens,” Boals said. “He’s got a floater, he can finish at the rim. He makes everyone else around him better.
“You got to give up something. Do you take him away and give up shots to those perimeter guys, or do you let him get his? He can do so many different things.”
Ohio junior point guard Jason Preston is one player who could challenge Jackson this year for MVP honors. Preston is averaging 19.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game, while shooting 58.8 percent overall.
In two head-to-head meetings last season, Preston averaged 17.0 points, 8.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game. Jackson averaged 24.0 points while the Zips took both meetings – 88-86 in Athens and 74-67 in Akron.
Groce is 4-2 in his meeting against the Bobcats, the team he guided to a pair of MAC Tournament titles and three NCAA Tournaments wins during his run in Athens from 2008-2012. Boals is 0-2 against Akron, where he coached on Keith Dambrot’s bench for three seasons during a prolonged era of excellence for the Zips.
Akron is 11-4 in its last 15 MAC openers, and 7-1 in its last eight MAC home openers. The Bobcats are 0-2 in true road games this season, and were 4-9 on the road a year ago. Boals knows if OU wants to be a real title contender, the wins away from the Convo have to show up on a more regular basis.
“In order to win a championship, you have to do it on the road,” he said.
Ohio sophomore win Ben Roderick (knee) has not played since an injury in the early minutes of a home win over Cleveland State on Dec. 6.
Boals said Roderick operated in some 5-on-5 situations in practice on Sunday, and anticipates he’ll be available at Akron.
“I can see him playing. How much? Don’t know,” Boals said. “He said he feels good which is very encouraging.”
Unhappy with switch
Boals has said several times over the last month how he disagreed with the MAC moving the Akron game from it’s originally scheduled date in February to prior to Christmas. The game was first moved to Dec. 21, then bumped back another day to the 22nd a few days later.
The movement threw a monkey wrench into the travel plans for several Ohio players, who are to receive a three-day break around the Christmas holiday. Instead, a full third of the OU roster will be spending Christmas in Athens instead of at home.
After Tuesday, the Bobcats will be off until the 26th. Once back on campus, COVID testing will determine how much practice Ohio gets in prior to a Dec. 29 road game at Miami.
“I wish everyone could go home. It’s a much-needed mental break for everybody,” Boals said. “But there wasn’t much consideration, I don’t believe, for the student-athlete in this case.”