The Bobcats finally will do something on Saturday they didn’t last season: celebrate a championship with whoever wants to be there.
The Ohio University men’s basketball team opens the 2021-2022 season with an exhibition game against the Division III Capital Crusaders inside the Convocation Center starting at 2 p.m. Prior to tip-off, Ohio will unfurl new banners in the Convo rafters commemorating Ohio’s 2021 MAC Tournament Championship.
Per the program’s request, the game itself will not be streamed. If you want to see it, you’ll have to be there in person; tickets cost just $5.
It will be the first ‘public’ game for Ohio since March, when the Bobcats capped a COVID-influenced season with a MAC Tournament title — their seventh overall and first since 2012. Ohio finished the season 17-8, 9-5 in MAC play, and enjoyed a weeklong stay at the NCAA bubble in Indianapolis. OU bumped off defending national champion (2019) Virginia 62-58 in the first round before falling to Creighton in the Second Round.
With a chance to return the entire roster, expectations have bubbled all summer for the Bobcats. Now it’s time to see if the Bobcats caught lightning in a bottle last season, or are built to be a repeat champion.
Third-year head coach Jeff Boals has already cautioned fans about thinking the Bobcats will simply pick up where they left. Ohio lost five players from last season, and has five new ones in the mix at this season’s start.
“The complexion of our team completely changed. We brought in five new guys,” Boals said. “It’s a completely different team, a different mindset. Now you’re the hunted instead of the hunter. You have to go through a new process.”
How might that process unfold? Can Ohio repeat? Who’s back? Who’s gone? And who is Capital? Let’s take a look at all of that on the eve of the Bobcats’ season.
Thanks for the Memories
Five players did not return this year for Ohio, despite all having the opportunity to do so. The one that will impact the on-the-floor product the most is obviously Jason Preston. The big-haired, smooth-playing point guard did it all last season for the Bobcats while piling up 16.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, while also leading the team in assists. He left early to enter the NBA Draft and was awarded with a second-round selection by the LA Clippers. A foot injury will likely wipe out most of his first professional season, however.
Preston’s absence will mean drastic changes for OU, not just because of missed production. He played large minutes, dictated the terms of the floor, and was the focal cog for the offense with any clean looks usually created by going through him during possessions. Ohio will have to learn to play with a new PG, with a different style, and that could take time.
Junior forward Mason McMurray transferred to USC Aiken after appearing in 18 games last season and was a back of the rotation player for OU. Sophomore center Nolan Foster (6 games) was the odd-man out in the rotation a year ago and landed at Marian University in Indianapolis. Center Rifen Miguel (12 games) was Ohio’s backup center for most of the year but was sidelined by COVID issues late in the year; he left for Troy. Freshman guard Jalen White (10 games) showed promise as a shooter, but transferred to Nicholls State.
Ohio returns three starters, three other rotational players, and 10 players overall from last year’s roster. This includes Preseason All-MAC First Team selection Ben Vander Plas, who averaged 13.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last season primarily playing as a power forward.
Vander Plas, with Preston, became the heart of the Bobcats’ progress a year ago, and was backed by strong years by junior wings Ben Roderick (12.2 ppg) and Lunden McDay (10.0 ppg). McDay started every game and was regarded as the best perimeter defender, while Roderick logged 21 starts and returns as Ohio’s best 3-point shooter.
Grad transfer Dwight Wilson III was terrific in 2020-21 as he averaged 14.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and shot 64.4% from the field. A low-post specialist and strong presence inside, he was the fulcrum around which Ohio operated. However, an off-season knee injury has sidelined him indefinitely.
Sophomore Colin Granger (1.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg) saw spot minutes as the backup center down the stretch. Junior Miles Brown (4.5 ppg) has become an impact defender even if his offensive game has made a big lead yet.
Finally sophomore Mark Sears was at times brilliant last season filling in for Preston (8.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.3 apg). Sears had much better numbers as a freshman than the player he’s replacing, and there’s hope he can take a Preston-like leap this season.
Also back are sophomore forward Sam Towns, who should have the opportunity to do more this season, and walk-on guards John Tenerowicz and Michael Brown Jr. (Miles’ twin brother.)
New to You
Two ultra-experienced players make up important parts of the five new players on the roster. Sixth-year player Jason Carter returns to Athens after two years as a starting forward at Xavier — which came after three good years at Ohio. An All-MAC talent as a freshman and sophomore at Ohio, Carter averaged 5.3 rebounds while making 51 starts for the Musketeers over the last two seasons.
Carter averaged 12.9 points and 6.4 rebounds over 65 games previously with the Bobcats. And he’s remembered. Carter was named to the Preseason Second Team All-MAC team.
Carter gives Ohio, essentially, another returning starter. He’ll play center this season for as long as Wilson remains sidelined.
The other vet is graduate transfer point guard Tommy Schmock, a four-year standout at the University of Findlay. He led the Oilers in steals and assists over the last four seasons, and averaged 10.9 points and 6.8 assist per game in 28 starts last season.
The other newcomers are true freshmen. A.J. Clayton is a 6-7 wing who enrolled a year early after piling up 23.6 points and 13.6 rebounds per game last winter at Philo HS in nearby Muskingum County. He was rated as the 43rd best PF in the country, and the eighth best in the state of Ohio.
Forward IJ Ezuma (6-8) brings rebounding and potential shot-blocking as a more finished recruit after spending a year at Hargrave Military Academy — where he averaged 13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game. He’s a finisher at both short (64.6%) and long (53.8% from 3) range.
Wing Olumide Adelodun (6-6) was a late signee — he missed the summer program at Ohio — and may be the most raw of the bunch. COVID standards were much different in his native Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and resulted in a severely decreased basketball schedule for him over the past two seasons.
How’s It Fit?
Wilson won’t be available to start the year, and possibly all season.
“He’s progressing really, really well. Not sure what he’s going to be in the future,” Boals said. “Going day by day.”
With no Preston, and no Wilson, Ohio won’t be starting from scratch but will have to rebuild big parts of its offensive and defensive production. Landing Carter will pay off as his versatility — like his ability to switch on screens and defend multiple positions — may allow the ‘Cats to run more, play more open concepts and do things differently than a year ago.
“Swiss Army knife, jack of all trades,” Boals said of Carter. “Can play a lot of positions. Can shoot the 3, can put the ball on the floor, can rebound, can defend perimeter guys at a high level.”
With Sears and Schmock, Ohio should be set at the PG position — even if it looks different than a year ago. McDay and Roderick could be on the precipice of breakthrough years themselves and make the leap from good to great players. Vander Plas will be the constant; you know what to expect from every time out.
That’s six spots of the rotation, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for others to carve out their niche. Towns, a long 6-9 athlete, will get the first long look behind Vander Plas as a combo forward and wing. If Ohio wants a traditional center, the only option is Granger but OU may elect to play a more wide open lineup. Miles Brown will still have a role in the rotation as a defensive fixer and energy player.
Of the three freshmen, Ezuma is my pick to contribute early. He can augment Ohio’s talents in the front court right away and has a year of prep school experience under his belt. Clayton is talented, but this was projected to be a redshirt season before the roster turnover. Adelodun is a bit of a mystery to me at this point in time.
Boals has admitted he backed off the schedule building after Preston turned pro, and I think that will serve him well in terms of wins/losses in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Ohio has just one preseason Top 25 team on the slate (at No. 10 Kentucky on Nov. 19). The next two marquee games include the season opener on Tuesday against visiting Belmont and at LSU on Dec. 1. Two other challenging non-con games include a trip to Cleveland State on Nov. 13, and a visit from Marshall on Dec. 15.
The other six non-conference games include five gimmie’s at home — Robert Morris, Mt. St. Mary’s (MD), non-DI Concordia, St. Francis (Pa) and USC Upstate — and a trip to Florida to face Stetson on Dec. 11.
An 8-3 record through the non-conference is entirely possible. While solid, that record (and the schedule itself) isn’t strong enough on its own to merit at-large considerations. Ohio’s path to the NCAA Tournament — barring upsets over UK and LSU and an insane record — lie in winning the MAC Tournament again.
Start it Up!
Capital is a Division III program from Columbus that plays in the Ohio Athletic Conference. The (newly-renamed) Comets were 4-4 in an abbreviated season in 2021-22 as Cincinnati native Carter Combs led the way with 13.9 points per game and claimed OAC Freshman of the Year honors. The game is an exhibition and will not count on the record for either side.
After the rehearsal, Ohio opens the season for real on Tuesday with Belmont in the Convo for a 7 p.m. tip. Belmont was 26-4 last year, but missed the NCAA Tournament when they were upset in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.