It’s been 27 years, but the disappointment of the night still cuts fresh for Jeff Boals.
It’s Nov. 30, 1994, and the Ohio Bobcats — the 14th ranked Ohio Bobcats — are in Lexington to battle No. 3 Kentucky, Rick Pitino and the rest of Big Blue Nation in Rupp Arena. Ohio, guided by Larry Hunter and featuring Gary Trent, Curtis Simmons, Geno Ford (and Boals!), plays well in spots but falls 79-74.
Boals, now Ohio’s men’s basketball coach, remembered it this way earlier this week: “You have to play really well to win, especially there. I learned that back in (’94). You got to make shots, you got to get a good whistle and try to be in there at the end.”
Ohio (3-0) finally makes a return trip to Lexington on Friday night. The Bobcats face No. 13 Kentucky (2-1) starting at 7 p.m. The game will be broadcast live on the SEC Network. Does Boals have any advice for his current team on how to handle the environment of playing a blue-blood program on their home floor?
“Yeah, don’t start Jeff Boals at the 3,” Boals said. “I think (Kentucky forward) Rodrick Rhodes stole the ball from me on three straight possessions. Good thing is I’m not playing.”
Boals had five points and four rebounds in that game and, yes, he was tagged with six turnovers. But the lesson then is the same as it will be Friday night: Play loose, play aggressive, and go for it.
“Just remember it’s basketball,” Ohio forward Ben Vander Plas said. “Have fun. Play with confidence. That’s a big focus for us.”
Ohio has cruised to a trio of double-digit wins to start the season, but the Bobcats haven’t faced anything like the Wildcats just yet. The game will be the second of the Kentucky Classic, a MTE event featuring OU, UK, Robert Morris University, Mount St. Mary’s.
At the moment, the Wildcats represent the only Top 25 team on the Bobcats’ schedule. The chance to play at Rupp — as Boals’ experience shows — is also rare, as is the chance to do so in front of a national TV audience. It’s a spotlight game in every sense of the word.
Ohio was okay in top 25 matchups a year, going 1-2 in games against then Top 10 Illinois and later against Virginia and Creighton in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio is just 12-58 against Top 25 teams in the program’s history.
“They’re talented, they’re athletic,” Boals said. “But It’s a great opportunity for our school , for our program.”
Kentucky, after a subpar 2020-21, has quickly rounded into form after losing its season opener to Duke in New York City. Since, the Wildcats have posted 40-point and 25-point victories over Robert Morris and Mount St. Mary’s respectively.
Head coach John Calipari has his usual assortment of young talent at his disposal, but it’s been a pair of transfers that have been the brightest early this season. Oscar Tshiebwe has been a monster inside and is averaging 18.3 points and 18.7 rebounds per game. At the other end of the spectrum is 5-9 guard Sahvir Wheeler, who is averaging 11.0 points and 10 assists per contest.
Wheeler’s 30 assists through three games are the most ever for a Wildcat to start their UK career. Likewise, no Kentucky player has had more than Tshiebwe’s 56 rebounds to begin their Kentucky career since at least 1956-57.
Tshiebwe had 20 rebounds in each of his first two games before ‘settling’ for 16 in Tuesday’s 80-55 victory.
“I love it…if he was 1 or 2 away [from 20], I’d leave him in for another minute and let him get 2 rebounds because that’s not selfish,” Calipari said. “Rebounds are hard to get and that’s not being selfish.”
Ohio will need a selfless approach to try to minimize Tshiebwe’s impact. The forward has an incredible 27 offensive rebounds in three games; the Bobcats have allowed a total of 19 offensive rebounds in three games.
“It’s kind of ridiculous,” Boals said. “The biggest thing with him will be trying to block him out as much as we can.”
Ohio has averaged 12 made 3-pointers per game this season, and brings a balanced offense with four starters averaging in double figures. Mark Sears leads the way with 19.3 points per game, while forwards Jason Carter (15.3 points) and Ben Vander Plas (15.0) both average 8.7 rebounds per contest.
The Bobcats have lost seven straight against Kentucky with the most recent meeting coming in 2005. Ohio beat Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament in 1964. OU is 0-6 all-time against UK in Lexington and the Wildcats own a 14-1 edge in the all-time series.
Calipari is 99-3 at UK against teams from outside the top seven basketball conferences — the football Power Five plus the AAC and Big East. But he’s never coached against Ohio, and Boals has never tested one of his teams against Kentucky.
The Bobcats will be tested in ways they haven’t seen yet this season. Kentucky will have better talent across the board and athleticism to spare. But Ohio should go in free of pressure, and that could help.
“We’re going to go in and have a lot of fun because it’s going to be a great crowd and we’re excited for it,” junior forward Ben Roderick said.