When it comes to sauce, or swagger, few players in the MAC have the level of bravado that Toledo point guard Marreon Jackson conveys every time he’s on the floor.
Be it a nice set up for a teammate, or a deep 3 in transition, Jackson has become one of an assortment of talented point guards in the league that have become appointment viewing.
Ohio thought it would counter with its own talented floor general on Friday night when the Bobcats (6-4, 2-2 MAC) visit Savage Arena for a 6:30 p.m. start against the league-leading Rockets (9-3, 4-0 MAC).
But, junior PG Jason Preston will likely miss his fourth straight game with an injury and OU will rely on freshman Mark Sears for major minutes once again. So far, that hasn’t been a major problem.
“Mark has been excellent in JP’s absence,” said forward Dwight Wilson III said. “He’s really holding down the fort for us and for him being a freshman what he’s doing is phenomenal.”
It’s been quite a debut for Sears as a starter. Over the last three games, the 6-1 guard from Muscle Shoals, Ala. has averaged 12.3 points, 8.0 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game while seeing his playing time leap to 35.7 minutes per contest. The only number not climbing dramatically is the turnover count; Sears has seven combined over the same stretch.
Now Sears hopes to guide OU past Toledo, something that’s happened just once since 2017 and not at all since Jackson took over running the show for the Rockets. Jackson is 4-0 against the Bobcats, and OU has dropped five of six against the Rockets.
Ohio’s last win in the series came on a Kenny Kaminski game-winner with seven seconds left in a 67-66 victory in the quarterfinal round of the MAC Tournament in 2017.
Ohio head coach Jeff Boals knows whatever fate befalls his club on Friday night, it will have nothing to do with Sears suddenly becoming a shrinking violet. Steady and rarely unflappable are the two traits that have dominated the early stretches of Sears’ college career.
“Nothing’s fazed him,” Boals said Thursday. “I don’t think this moment will faze him.”
And Sears has developed a quiet confidence that won’t be shaken by Jackson, or the Rockets. He left home as a high schooler, instead opting to play a prep season at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia last winer.
There, he helped lead the Tigers to a 37-4 record and a Final Four spot in the Prep National Championship after averaging 14 points, five rebounds and three assists per game.
But both Hargrave’s national title game, and Sears’ recruitment for 2020-21 were wiped out when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country. The plan in the aftermath, Sears said, was to return to Hargrave and re-classify as a recruit for 2021-22.
When Sears’ coach at Hargrave, Lee Martin, joined Boals as an assistant at Ohio, the plans changed.
“So I got that call on July 22 that (Martin was) coming, and he wanted me to come with him,” Sears said.
With official visits killed off as part of the pandemic, Sears took an unofficial road trip with his family late in the summer to Athens. The Bobcats passed his eye test, and Boals landed a crucial piece for his roster.
“I walked in The Convo and seen all the history in the gym,” Sears said. “And then after the gym I went to see the players… and it was like a brotherhood.”
And Sears, again, wasn’t fazed by the state of the OU roster which featured an incumbent point guard. The chance to play from day 1 wasn’t promised or expected. Instead, he was eager to learn from Preston and quickly began mining the rags-to-riches story for insight about how to improve his own game.
The biggest lesson was to play at his own pace, and never let the defense knock him off it.
“A big reason why Mark is here is because of (Preston),” Boals said.
At some point Preston will return to the lineup and Boals will have to figure out how to play both point guards at the same time. Sears has earned the minutes and the opportunity.
In the meantime, Ohio will try to squeeze out ever win it can with Sears, who wasn’t on the radar just six months ago.
“You just have to stay ready,” Sears said. “Just be mentally prepared in life.”
Against Toledo, Ohio will need to be prepared for a different type, if effective, offensive approach. The Rockets will take a ton of 3-pointers, and cash in more than 10 made 3s per game.
All those defensive principles, sink-and-fill on a drive for instance, need to be tweaked for Toledo, which is content, and capable, of simply bombing away all night long with its four-guard lineup.
Besides Jackson (16.0 points per game), freshman Ryan Rollins (14.3), junior Setric Millner Jr. (13.8) and senior Spencer Littleson (12.5) give the Rockets a quartet of double-digit scorers. Littleson is shooting at 47.7 percent from 3-point range for the season and has twice hit for eight 3s in a single game this season, including going 8-of-10 in a win Tuesday at Kent State.
“No. 1, they run a million set plays, and really good sets, to create mismatches and movement,” Boals explained. “The second thing is they have very skilled players on the floor.”
Ohio hopes Sears — much like he has in the last three games — is able to outplay or at least cancel out the opposing point guard. Sears didn’t blink when transferring to Hargrave, didn’t during a last-minute recruiting switch, and hasn’t so far while thrown into the starting lineup.
The Bobcats don’t think he’ll start now.
“He’s built for this,” said Ohio sophomore guard Lunden McDay. “We kind of expected that because in practice he does hard.”