The Bobcats are set to finally get their season back on track, just in time for a late-season push to the finish.
Ohio (11-6, 7-4 Mid-American Conference) is set to end a three-week COVID-19 caused break on Tuesday when it hosts Akron (14-4, 12-3) at the Convocation Center starting at 2 p.m. The game will be streamed live on ESPN3.
The Bobcats’ last game was on Feb. 2, an 83-69 win at Central Michigan, and OU has not played since due to COVID-19 protocol after the program experienced its first outbreak of the season.
At the beginning of the month, the Bobcats were riding a four-game winning streak. Now they’ll be trying to shake off 21 days of rust. Head coach Jeff Boals said Monday that his team didn’t resume any team activities until Feb. 15, and had its first real practice since the break began on Sunday.
“We felt really good about where we were. Now, it’s almost like we’re starting over,” Boals said.
And the Bobcats will enter the stretch without all their pieces. Ohio is scheduled to play three games in five days this week – with home bouts against Eastern Michigan on Thursday and Buffalo on Saturday – as part of five games in 11 days to wrap up the regular season.
Boals declined again to offer specifics, on either who might be out and how many players ultimately tested positive, but he was clear that the outbreak affected virtually the entire roster and coaching staff. Boals, himself, admitted to a 10-day quarantine stay in a hotel as he aimed to avoid exposing his own family after a positive test.
With the widespread outbreak, many in the program were then set on different schedules. Some players/coaches cleared their quarantine or no-contact periods at different times than others. Boals said serious COVID symptoms, for himself or others in the program, were virtually non-existent. But the impact on the season has been, and will continue to be, disruptive.
Boals admitted not everyone will be available for the game Tuesday. And the Bobcats may not be complete for another week to 10 days.
“We still don’t have everyone. We won’t everyone (Tuesday), or even Thursday,” the coach said. “Maybe by Saturday.”
Ohio currently sits fourth in the MAC standings, and the three teams above them – Toledo, Akron and Kent State – have already clinched spots for the MAC Tournament in Cleveland. Odds are good that the Bobcats, barring a disastrous two-week stretch, will make the tournament field.
But none of that will ease the difficult task Boals or the Bobcats have in front of them. How do you restart the season, at a critical juncture, at less than full strength against teams also desperate to sharpen up for the postseason?
“It’s a daunting (task) and a challenging one,” Boals said. “But we’re going to compete for a win.”
Ohio will dive back into the season with the Zips, one of the best teams in the league who handed the Bobcats a 90-70 road loss back in December.
In that matchup, the Bobcats did a poor job of controlling Akron PG Loren Cristian Jackson, who attacked high ball screens to either score (21 points) or set up teammates (eight assists). The Zips spread the Bobcats out, and attacked with a 3-point heavy approached that left OU in the dust.
Akron hit 14 of 25 3-pointers (56 percent), with wings Bryan Trimble (22 points, 6 of 6 from 3) and Maishe Dailey (16, 3 of 4 from 3) leading the way.
With Ohio trying to get its legs back, Boals is under no illusion about how sharp, or in rhythm, his team will be.
“I’m not naïve enough to think we’ll go out and play our best basketball,” the coach said. “It’ll be sloppy.”
With little on-court time over the last three weeks, Ohio will likely use the next two weeks to try to get to some sort of approximation of where it was before the break. Technically, the Bobcats haven’t clinched a spot in the tournament yet, but doesn’t need much over the final five games to do so.
According to Boals, his team is 9-2 this season when the Bobcats have been “complete.” They’ll need at least one more win in something less than that state to give themselves a chance for the postseason.
“It’s a different mindset. We’re definitely trying to build up to play our best basketball starting on March 11,” Boals said. “We have zero excuses. No one is going to feel sorry for you.”
But there is empathy, especially from Boals for current players. His own quarantine experience left him with “nothing but time and a TV.”
Sequestered in a room with an assortment of electronics, but no human interaction, only highlighted for him the strain the 2020-21 season has been on student-athletes across the Division I landscape.
Returning to play isn’t just something he or the players want, it’s something they need.
“You can definitely see the mental health stress it causes. It’s real.”