R-E-L-A-X time for Ohio as it travels to Ball State

With his team facing its most difficult stretch of the season, Ben Vander Plas said now is not the time to panic.

To drive that point home, Vander Plas — from Wisconsin — quoted Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“It’s funny, I just saw (Rodgers’) highlight clip the other day, the one where he goes R-E-L-A-X, relax,” Vander Plas said Wednesday, following Ohio’s 83-75 home loss to Bowling Green.

“This is that type of moment for us,” he added. “We’re ready to compete. We’re not worried at all.”

Ohio freshman Mark Sears made his first collegiate start on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020 at the Convo against Bowling Green. Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Colin Mayr.

But the concern level has to be rising for the Bobcats (4-4, 0-2 Mid-American Conference), who have lost three straight games and have star point guard Jason Preston dealing with an unspecified ‘lower extremity’ injury.

That’s the backdrop for Ohio’s trip to Ball State (4-3, 2-0) for a 3 p.m. start on Saturday at Worthen Arena in Muncie. The game will be aired by CBS Sports Network. The Bobcats, tabbed second in the MAC in preseason polling, are in danger to falling out of the hunt early in the 20-game conference race.

“Everyone is gonna go through it,” said Ohio coach Jeff Boals about the adversity facing his club. “It’s about adaptability, and change, and how you deal with it.”

There’s been no update on Preston – averaging 18.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game – since Wednesday when he sat out for the first time this season. Freshman Mark Sears made his first start in Preston’s place, and played well with career highs of nine points, six rebounds and nine assists in 33 minutes, while guilty of just two turnovers.

“Mark was that leader today,” said sophomore wing Ben Roderick. “He didn’t back down at all…that takes a lot of grit.”

If Preston remains out, Sears will likely start again. And in either scenario, Boals is going with a shorter rotation while he tries to iron out some of Ohio’s defensive issues. The Bobcats have allowed 84.7 points per game during their three-game slide.

Against BG, Boals issued just 32 (out of 200) minutes to the bench. And 22 of those minutes went to sophomore guard Miles Brown. Forward Mason McMurray logged just three minutes, and freshman center Colin Granger had seven.

Out of the mix entirely were centers Rifen Miguel and Nolan Foster, and freshman forward Sam Towns. Boals said the lineup change was intentional. He didn’t feel the Bobcats competed hard in road losses at Marshall and Akron earlier in December.

“The guys in there were battling, competing,” Boals said. “You have to show it, show it in practice. Looking forward, that’s what we want.”

The game at Ball State will be the first of three in seven days for Ohio. At the end of the stretch, OU will have faced four of the top six (according to preseason balloting) teams in the league in BG (1), Akron (3), Ball State (5) and Toledo (6) in its first five MAC games.

Vander Plas said Ohio is embracing the challenge.

“The next game is never guaranteed with what we’re facing,” he said. “So we’re thankful to be playing at all, we’re ready and wanting to compete.

“And it’s still really early.”

Ball State has won four of its last five games including a 76-68 win at Western Michigan in its last outing on Dec. 22.

The Cardinals are a guard-driven outfit under eighth-year head coach James Whitford, with sixth-year senior K.J. Walton and senior Ismael El-Amin leading the way. Walton, granted a sixth season after an ankle injury limited him to 10 games last year, is averaging 19.1 points per game on 57.8 percent shooting. Walton, a Missouri transfer, has not made a single 3-pointer this season.

El-Amin, the point guard, is averaging 15.7 points per game after earning Third Team All-MAC honors last year and landing a spot on the preseason All-MAC Second Team.

The Cardinals snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Bobcats in last year’s matchup, also in Muncie. Ohio lost 65-54 after shooting 35.6 percent in a setback on Feb. 1, 2020. The Bobcats responded to that low point but winning seven of the next 10 games.

Boals is predicting his current team will find a similar bounce-back soon.

“We’ll will our fair share of games,” he said.

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