It’d be easy to forget the Ohio Bobcats are still playing basketball. After all, the Bobcats have played just three games in the last 36 calendar days.
But it’s impossible for Ohio to forget the 2020 MAC Tournament, when they were pulled off the floor minutes before tipoff as the event – and the sports world – were canceled in the wake of the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic a year ago.
The Bobcats (13-7) will make their return to Cleveland on Thursday, with a 1:30 p.m. tipoff against Kent State (15-7) in the quarterfinal round of the 2021 MAC Tournament. Ohio, the fifth seed, has no player on the roster who has played in a tournament game in Cleveland.
That’ll change Thursday – pending pregame COVID testing of course – when OU faces the No. 4 seed Golden Flashes.
“It’s one of those things that you don’t know what you don’t know, which will probably be good for some of our guys,” Ohio head coach Jeff Boals said Monday. “I think it was good that we were up there (in 2020) and in that environment for the half-hour we were there.
“Everything raises up 10 notches. The intensity level, the competitiveness, the stakes, every possession is gonna matter kind of thing.”
Ohio will have all kinds of questions going in. Besides the inexperience on the biggest stage the conference can offer, the Bobcats will have issues of rust to address. OU endured a three-week COVID break starting on Feb. 3.
The ‘Cats returned from that, and then played three games in five days. But another positive test on March 2 led to cancellations of Ohio’s final two games of the regular season. OU will play Thursday to break a 12-day hiatus.
Ohio, since Feb. 2, didn’t hold a single 5-on-5 practice session until March 4.
“It’s not ideal,” Boals admitted.
Ohio may not have everyone available either. Boals confirmed the team had one positive test to a player on March 2, and two other roster members were caught up in the resulting contact tracing. Boals is hopeful the contact tracing absentees will return for the tournament, but it’s less likely the positive testing player will be available.
Neither Boals, nor Ohio, has named or indicated who may be out.
Then there’s the issue of how the Bobcats might match up with the Flashes, who won the teams’ only meeting this season in a 89-79 decision in the Convocation Center on Jan. 16. The game wasn’t as close as the final score indicates.
Kent State raced out to a 40-26 lead by halftime, and won easily despite OU scoring 53 points and hitting 10 3-pointers in the second half.
“The first half we got dominated. Second half we made a bunch of 3s,” Boals said.
Kent State won the rebounding battle 45-21, and posted a humiliating 26-6 margin in the first half. KSU, with 6-9 forward Danny Pippen, 6-7 forward Tervell Beck and 6-11 center Justyn Hamilton, ruled the paint with 50 points.
“That game kind of started everything,” Boals said. “From that game, that kind of started our ‘block out’ mentality.”
Ohio learned from the experience, and improved. The ‘Cats are 6-1 since that loss.
KSU will have questions of its own lingering. The Flashes didn’t play Pippen, a First Team All-MAC pick averaging 19.2 points per game, in their regular-season finale. Also held out was Hamilton. Beck, Pippen and Hamilton account for 46 percent of the team’s points.
KSU coach Rob Senderoff said the absences were simply a coach’s decision. Speculation on the reasons why, and if either or both will return for the tournament, have been a hot topic around Ohio this week.
Boals said his focus remains on what his team has to do well.
“The fact that we played them once and we got beat pretty good, I think that’s on a lot of our guys’ minds. But we’re more focused on what we do, how we do it and what needs to be done in order to win the game,” the coach said.
“It’s going to come to defense and rebounding like it has the last seven games. Our guys are excited about the opportunity.”
The Bobcats enter as the second-best offense in the league (111.0 points per 100 possessions in conference play), while the Flashes have the second-most efficient defense (101.7 points allowed per 100 possessions)
Ohio hasn’t won a tournament game in Cleveland since 2017. KSU ended OU’s run that year with a 68-66 victory in the semifinals.
Preston leads Ohio’s All-MAC list
Junior guard Jason Preston was named to the All-MAC First Team on Tuesday, leading a list of five players recognized on the awards list – which was voted on by the conference’s coaches.
Senior forward Dwight Wilson III and junior forward Ben Vander Plas were both Third Team honorees. Freshman guard Mark Sears landed a spot on the All-Freshman list, and sophomore guard Lunden McDay was named to the MAC All-Defensive Team.
Preston earned First Team honors for the first time, and finished the season averaging 15.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and a MAC-leading 7.6 assists per game. Preston also shot 50.3 percent overall for the season, and recorded his second career triple-double on Jan. 23 against Ball State.
Wilson, a transfer, averaged 15.2 points and 7.3 rebounds this season while shooting a program-record 69.2 percent from the field. Barring a disaster in the MAC Tournament, Wilson will break the Ohio record for shooting, set by Gary Trent (65.2 percent).
Vander Plas landed on the Third Team for a second straight season after averaging 12.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
With Sears, Ohio put a player on the All-Freshman list for a sixth straight year. Averaging 9.3 points and 4.0 rebounds per game for the year, Sears averaged 11.2 points and made five starts in the Bobcats’ 14 conference games this season, and ranks second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio.
McDay, named to the All-Freshman list in 2020, earned his first All-Defensive Team award. He averaged 10.4 points and 2.4 rebounds per game. McDay picked up 11 steals and three blocked shots in 14 conference games this season while also being tasked with the primary defender on the opponent’s best perimeter scorer.
2021 MAC Men’s Basketball Tournament
Thursday, March 11 – Quarterfinals
- Game 1: No. 1 Toledo (20-7) vs. No. 8 Ball State (10-12), 11 a.m. (ESPN+)
- Game 2: No. 4 Kent State (15-7) vs. No. 5 Ohio (13-7), approximately 1:30 p.m. (ESPN+)
- Game 3: No. 2 Buffalo (14-7) vs. No. 7 Miami (12-10), approximately 4 p.m. (ESPN+)
- Game 4: No. 3 Akron (14-7) vs. No. 6 Bowling Green (14-10), approximately 6:30 p.m. (ESPN+)
Friday, March 12 – Semifinals
- Game 5: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 5 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
- Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, approximately 7:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Saturday, March 13 – MAC Championship
- Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)