Jeff Boals isn’t given to elaborate speeches or elongated talking points. He generally says things with an economical use of words.
But even he cut it one word short when asked to describe his team’s season opener, coming up Tuesday night in the Convocation Center when the Bobcats take on Belmont in a 7 p.m. start. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.
“Tuesday’s real,” Boals said Saturday after Ohio breezed through an exhibition win over Capital.
Ohio’s third-year head coach left out one word: hard.
The Bruins have been one of the best mid-major programs in the country for roughly two decades. Belmont has won the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title in seven of the last 9 years, and a conference championship in 12 of the last 16 seasons. Third-year coach Casey Alexander has yet to finish a regular season without a championship.
It’s no wonder the Bruins were coveted by the Missouri Valley Conference; Belmont will leave the OVC after this year and join the MVC officially on July 1, 2022.
The Bruins return 97% of their production from a year as virtually everyone from a 24-6 roster is back for another run at NCAA glory. Belmont had three All-OVC talents last year, and placed two on the Preseason All-OVC list this year. Senior center (6-11) Nick Muszynski averaged 15.0 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks last season. Senior guard Grayson Murphy (6-3) is a two-time OVC Defensive Player of the Year and averaged 10.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game.
The Bruins, in short, are loaded. And Boals knows it.
“You’re playing an NCAA Tournament team in game 1,” Boals said. “I hope we win but it’s going to be a growth process for our guys. Certain guys who don’t have experience will keep getting experience.
“The core group of guys have to keep clicking.”
The Bruins should have been an NCAA Tournament team last year, but weren’t. Belmont lost in the OVC Tournament title game, and was left out on Selection Sunday despite having as many wins (at the time) as any team in the country.
So, yeah, the Bruins will come in extremely motivated.
The Bobcats won’t be without their own strengths, and sense of purpose. Forwards Ben Vander Plas and Jason Carter both have played tons of games over their careers, can post matchup problems because of the variety in their game, and have great chemistry together.
It’s no secret the duo may have to shoulder the load with Dwight Wilson III (a third 1,000-point scorer) out with injury, and a new point guard running the show.
Ohio sophomore Mark Sears and grad transfer Tommy Schmock will be tested right out of the gate by Murphy.
“We got to be sharp. It’s not gonna be easy,” Sears said. “Trust your work and everything should pay off.”
The teams played similar, highly-efficient, styles last season. Both squads finished the year inside the nation’s top 30 in a host of offensive statistics, including 2-point shooting, assists per game, offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage, scoring offense and field goal percentage.
Win or lose, it’s just game 1 of 31 for Ohio. Let’s take a quick tour through the non-conference schedule with my guesses how the Bobcats finish up before the labors of MAC play begin.
Ohio Men’s Basketball 2021 Non-Conference Schedule
Nov. 9 — vs. Belmont. The Bruins were 24-6 last year, return everybody and start the year ranked No. 77 in the kenpom.com rankings. Tough way to start; I have the Bobcats losing the opener, 0-1.
Nov 13 — at Cleveland State. The Vikings were 19-8 and won the Horizon Tournament for a spot in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 15 seed. Ranked 151 by kenpom, Cleveland State will be motivated, but Ohio sneaks out a road win, 1-1.
Nov. 15 — vs. Robert Morris. Good ole Bobby Mo was just 4-15 last year and starts this season ranked only No. 284. But, Ohio also struggles against these guys. Bobcats win an ugly one in the Convo, 2-1.
Nov. 19 — at No. 10 Kentucky. The marquee game of the non-con, the Wildcats were dreadful (9-16) last season but have reloaded the talent cupboard. The only top 25 team on the schedule, UK is ranked No. 17 in KP. No upset in Rupp this time, 2-2.
Nov. 22 — vs. Mt. St. Mary’s (Md.). Could be a sneaky good game. The Mountaineers won the NEC last year at 12-11 and got into the NCAAs as a No. 16 seed. Ranked 280 in KP in the preseason, Ohio should pick this one up, 3-2.
Nov. 26 — vs Concordia (Mich.) This a non-DI opponent and simply fills in the Black Friday spot on the schedule. Ohio assistant coach Kyle Barlow is an alum and former assistant there. Ohio cruises, and moves to 4-2.
Dec. 1 — at LSU. The Tigers were 19-10 last year and were an eight-seed in the NCAA Tournament out of the SEC. Ranked No. 43 by KP, LSU’s physicality will be an issue, as will the trip to Baton Rouge. Bobcats lose here, fall to 4-3.
Dec. 4 — vs. St. Francis (Pa.). At 6-16 in the NEC last season, the Red Flash were a sub-300 Ken Pom team last season. They start 2021 ranked 244. Should be a get-well game for OU, 5-3.
Dec. 11 — at Stetson. The fourth and last road trip of the non-conference season, Stetson was 12-15 in the Atlantic Sun last season. Ranked 195 in the preseason by KP, the Hatters present a potential obstacle. I think Ohio finds a way, improves to 6-3.
Dec. 15 — vs. Marshall. The Thundering Herd romped past Ohio last season in Huntington and finished 15-7 overall. Comparably ranked (111 vs. Ohio’s 115 by KP) this should be a good matchup and possibly the most enjoyable non-con game of the home season. Ohio in a nail-biter, 7-3.
Dec. 21 — vs. USC Upstate. At 5-18 in the Big South last season, the Spartans (according to kenpom.com) are the ‘worst’ team on the non-conference schedule (No. 336). The Bobcats will go into the Christmas break with a win, and at (according to me) 8-3.