Bobcats’ turning point came at a low moment, and just in time

At the time, it felt like an indictment.

In reality, it was a turning point.

Defense led to Ohio’s mid-season turnaround, and lots of good times in Cleveland during the 2021 MAC Tournament. Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Midge Mazur

The Ohio University men’s basketball team begins play in the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Saturday as the 13th-seeded Bobcats (16-7) take on No. 4 seed Virginia (18-6) in a West Regional first round game at Indiana University’s Assembly Hall beginning at 7:15 p.m.

The fact Ohio is in this position seemed unlikely two months ago. Following a Jan. 16 home loss to Kent State, 89-79, the Bobcats were just 7-6, 3-4 in the Mid-American Conference and looked like a group too young, or too soft, to be a contender for a conference champion.

Ohio was whipped on the glass, and in the paint, in that game – remember a 26-6 deficit in rebounding after 20 minutes? – but instead of breaking the Bobcats the outcome served as a forge for better things to come. Head coach Jeff Boals said the team took the result, with the evidence and a contentious team video review session the next day, to heart.

“That was very real,” Boals said minutes after Ohio secured its NCAA Tournament bid with a win over Buffalo in the championship game of the MAC Tournament on March 13.

“Guys called each other out,” he continued. “From that point on, the peer accountability was huge.”

It was at that point that Ohio’s season changed. The Bobcats were no longer Boals’ team; Instead, ownership of Ohio’s fortunes rested with the entire roster.

Juniors Jason Preston and Ben Vander Plas were acknowledged as essential in leading the turnover. They didn’t just hold others accountable bynoting mistakes; They were willing to hear it and accept it when they missed a block out, or were lazy on a defensive rotation, or didn’t back in transition.

“We just tried to make sure we were all in it, all invested,” Vander Plas said in late January. “It’s going to take all of us, and we all need to be held to the same standard.”

The results were dramatic, and stuck despite two COVID-19 pauses to covered a 33 combined days.

After the Kent State loss, Ohio fell to 7-6 on the season and 3-4 in conference play. The Bobcats responded by winning nine of their final 10 games leading into the NCAA Tournament – all against MAC foes.

Ohio was more connected on the defensive end in many ways – those missed block outs started to become harder and harder to find for instance – and it showed up in the overall defensive numbers.

OU finished the season ranked 178th nationally (out of 357 teams) in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency rankings, giving up 101.2 points per 100 possessions. Not great, not bad.

After the first 13 games, OU was surrendering 74.5 points per game on an average of 71 possessions per game. Overall, the ‘Cats were giving up 1.049 points per possession – or 104.9 points per 100 possessions.

In the final 10 games, after Kent State, Ohio allowed 717 points on 729 total possessions. OU was giving up fewer points per game (71.7) on more possessions per game (72.9). Overall, the ‘Cats were allowing just 0.939 points per possession, or 93.9 points per 100 possessions.

Ohio’s defensive rating over the final 10 games would’ve ranked 24th in the national year-end rankings (raw data).  Virginia, regarded as one of the nation’s best defensive teams year-in and year-out under coach Tony Bennett, ranked 33rd nationally in adjusted (for opponent) defensive rating by giving up 92.3 points per 100 possessions.

That improved defense came to the forefront in the MAC Tournament, when Ohio led or held the lead for 117 minutes of the 120 played in the three-day tournament.

“Our guys just really bought into it, and have for a while now,” Boals said. “It started on the defensive end.”

The mid-year re-invention wasn’t easy to identify, and didn’t stand out immediately as something like a player returning from injury. But it’s part of Ohio’s story this year, and a huge reason why the Bobcats are back in the biggest event of the sport.

“We had to get better there,” Vander Plas said. “We felt pretty good about what we could do offensively. But we had to get that figured out to get to where we wanted to be.”

The Bobcats took a weakness, and hammered it into a strength. The results of doing so have been easy to see.

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