Bobcats going all in on defense with NIU up next

If not for the Northern Illinois Huskies, the Bobcats would be the worst defensive team in the Mid-American Conference.

The saving grace for Ohio is it at least has a competent offensive approach. But so far, that’s accounted for just two more wins in conference play. Coach Jeff Boals said until OU finds ways to improve on the defensive end, the Bobcats probably exactly where they deserve to be in the standings.

Ohio’s Jason Preston (left) and Dwight Wilson III (4) will lead the Bobcats in a road game at Northern Illinois on Tuesday, Jan. 19. Photo by Jason Arkley

“The defense is not good enough,” Boals said Monday. “It’s got to be instinctual, got to be connected. It’s something we’ve got to get ironed out in practice.”

Ohio (7-6, 3-4 MAC) will get a chance to show if it’s progressing on that front Tuesday night when it visits DeKalb, Ill. for a rematch against NIU (2-10, 1-6 MAC). OU will begin the night seventh in the MAC standings; the top eight teams will qualify for the 2021 MAC Tournament.

The Bobcats are ranked 250th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to OU checks in 11th in the MAC field goal percentage defense (46.3 percent) and in 3-point shooting defense (35.6 percent).

In short, conference foes are able to do what they want, when they want. A good example was OU’s 76-75 win over the Huskies earlier this month. In the first matchup, Ohio avoided overtime only when the Huskies missed an open 3-pointer at the buzzer. It was the Huskies’ high-water mark for points this season.

But until that final miss, NIU shot 57.1 percent overall in the second half and an unthinkable 63.6 percent from 3-point range. They were miraculous numbers for the Huskies, who rank last in the MAC in scoring (59.4 points per game) and shooting (39.8 percent), and 11th in 3-point shooting (29.0 percent).

NIU checks in at No. 319 in adjusted offensive efficiency, out of 357 teams.

In the narrow win, Huskies’ backup Zool Kueth exploded for 22 points; Kueth entered with three made 3-pointers on the season, and finished the night 6-of-9 from behind the arc.

“Probably lucky to come out of that game with the win,” Boals said.

Ohio won the game, one of four it played without Jason Preston, but the issues that showed up have been consistent against the better teams on the conference schedule. Bowling Green (via free throws), Akron, Toledo and Kent State (on Saturday) all proved unstoppable for OU in a series of losses that have exposed the Bobcats’ biggest area of need.

The lack of defense has overshadowed an above-average offense – Ohio is top 75 in the country in a handful of offensive metrics – and will be the highlighted part of the scouting report moving forward. The Bobcats are good enough offensively to play with any team in the conference. But they’ve also been ineffectual enough on the defensive end to be a non-factor in half their MAC game so far.

“We believe we are one of the better teams in the league. The bottom line is now we have to prove it,” said Boals, whose team was picked No. 2 in the preseason MAC poll. “Until we get it figured out, the biggest thing is us getting better.”

Ohio is just 2-4 on the road this season, but the Huskies are just 2-4 on their home floor in their own Convocation Center. But as bad as the Huskies have been — they have a minus-15.7 scoring differential per game — they did manage to score an upset win over Akron (67-65) on Jan. 12.

“We should have a sense of urgency about this game,” Boals said. “They’ve proven they can win.”

Bobcat bits – Senior center Dwight Wilson III had 25 points on 12 of 14 shooting in the first matchup, but hasn’t fared well in OU’s last couple of games when faced with consistent double-teams. …Sophomore center Nolan Foster remains sidelined with an undisclosed lower leg injury, and has not yet returned to practice. A redshirt season seems like a strong possibility at this point. …Following Tuesday’s road trip, Ohio is scheduled for back-to-back home games, against Ball State on Friday and Western Michigan on Tuesday. However, the Broncos have postponed two straight games due to COVID-19 protocols.

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