For three and a half months, the Ohio Bobcats looked like a bonafide Mid-American Conference title contender.
The last three weeks installed doubt about that potential. Now, it’s time to figure out if a week off was enough to bust the Bobcats out of their funk just in time for the most important week of the MAC basketball season.
Ohio (23-8) and seven other MAC teams descend on Cleveland this week for the 2022 MAC Tournament. The Bobcats, the defending tournament champion, come in as the No. 3 seed and will face No. 6 Ball State (14-16) at approximately 6:30 p.m. or so on Thursday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
That quarterfinal game will be the last of four played on the day in the venue. Only the top eight teams qualified for the tournament in 2022. Other first-round matchups (in order on Thursday) include No. 1 Toledo (25-6) vs. No. 8 Central Michigan (7-22), No. 4 Akron (21-9) vs. No. 5 Buffalo (19-10), and No. 2 Kent State (21-9) vs. No. 7 Miami (14-17).
The question surrounding Ohio is if it can get its act together. The Bobcats were 22-4 at one point, but stumbled down the stretch with losses in four of its last five games, including the last three in a row. The Bobcats were drubbed twice, and faced double-digit deficits in all five games.
It’s a far cry from the way Ohio started the MAC slate. Then, the Bobcats gained control, rarely trailing at all, won 12 of 13 at one point, and locked games up with one double-digit win after another. But the ‘Cats have struggled offensively for an extended period of time, and the defense – the hallmark most of the season – has seen enough gaps to leave the team concerned.
The tide turned against Ohio after a stretch of six games in 12 days, including three in just five on the road. OU hasn’t looked like the same team since.
But now the Bobcats have had a few days to regroup. Jeff Boals has yet to lose a game in the MAC Tournament with OU (4-0), and has continued to beat the positivity drum that his team will return to form when it matters most.
The bracket is as favorable as it can be for Ohio. The Bobcats get Ball State in the nightcap on Saturday, and Ohio blew out the Cardinals in the only meeting this season thanks to a 31-1 run over 14 minutes covering both halves. Ball State, it should be noted, was coming a tight stretch of games going into that game at the Convo.
Ball State was 0 of 18 with 8 turnovers during the run, and couldn’t muster much of a comeback in the 87-63 loss. Jason Carter had 18 points and Mark Sears added 13 points, six rebounds, and six assists.
The league’s best young big man, Ball State center Payton Sparks, had 13 points and 11 rebounds in the loss and figures to be a major factor in the rematch.
And now some quick-hitters about the tournament, the game, and Ohio’s chances for another magical stay in Cleveland.
Can Ohio win it again?
Eh, maybe? A year ago, Ohio benefited from an extended COVID-influenced break before the tournament and took advantage with three sharp, energetic games in Cleveland. That won’t be the case this time. I’m fairly confident Ohio will handle business against Ball State, but beyond that it’s hard to see Ohio playing well three consecutive nights.
But if 2010 taught us anything, it’s you overlook seven-time MAC Tournament champion Ohio at your own peril.
Who’s the favorite then?
I’d go with Kent State. The Golden Flashes are riding a 12-game winning streak, have the (in my opinion) league MVP in lead guard Sincere Carry, and pinned losses on Toledo in both meetings with the league regular-season champion. Malik Jacobs has given them a good No. 2 scorer, and the Flashes’ defense has been the best in the league over the last six weeks. Also, Rob Senderoff has done a terrific job of getting this to believe and riding the momentum of a win streak.
Anyone else have a chance?
I could make cases for any of five teams winning the tournament. Toledo has been so good all conference season and has the most potent offense to go with an improved defense under long-time coach Tod Kowalczyk. The Rockets will have a walk-over against CMU in the opener, but then will be fighting against their own history – they’ve been ‘tight’ in several games in Cleveland the last few years.
Ohio, if the legs are there, could reach the final but has fared well in two games against Toledo. Akron has done a nice job of rebounding mid-season under John Groce and has the bonus of an interior presence with Enrique Freeman. Buffalo is capable of catching lightning in a bottle too with their recent history in the building, the pace and athleticism they play with, and front-court length.
Ohio’s go-to guys
The Bobcats have leaned on three players to generate the lion’s share of their offense all season, and if any falter in Cleveland it will be hard to pick up the championship. Sophomore guard Mark Sears has played at an MVP level most of the year and put together a terrific second season statline; 19.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.3 apg, 41.6% from 3, 91.2% FTs.
Ben Vander Plas (13.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) leads Ohio with 60 made 3-pointers this season, and is capable of delivering big games when it matters, as evidenced last year. Jason Carter (13.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg) tailed off in the last third of the season, but worked with Vander Plas to give Ohio two multifaceted bigs capable of defending multiple spots on the floor, rebounding, outside shooting, and passing.
Ohio’s most important player
I have two here: junior wing Ben Roderick and graduate student Tommy Schmock. Simply put, at least one of the two have to knock in some 3s for Ohio to be successful. Roderick has been mired in a season-long shooting slump from 3 (22.9%), and while Schmock has been more successful (38.3%) he struggled in the final week going 3 of 17 from the field in losses at Bowling Green and Northern Illinois.
One of those two has to hit the open ones that come their way when Sears, Vander Plas or Carter face inevitable double teams.
What about the All-MAC teams?
You can view the full list here, but in general it was good news for Ohio. PG Mark Sears and forward Ben Vander Plas were named to the All-MAC First Team, and forward Jason Carter was a Third Team honoree in his return season to Athens.
The big winner in the awards list was Kent State, which had the Player of the Year (Sincere Carry), Coach of the Year (Rob Senderoff), Sixth Man of the Year (Justyn Hamilton), and two members of the All-Defensive Team (Carry and Malique Jacobs).
More on the Cardinals and Bobcats
Ohio and Ball State both have seven conference tournament titles, tied for the most in MAC history, and boast some of the most successful resumes in the event’s history. Ohio is 44-32 all-time in the tournament with three titles in the last 12 years. The Cardinals are 39-33 in the MAC Tournament.
Ohio has claimed 12 of the last 13 meeting against BSU, but is just 3-7 all time against the Cardinals in the tournament. The last meeting between the teams in the tournament came in 2014, when Ohio secured a 76-64 victory in a first-round game in Athens.
The last matchup in Cleveland came in 2011, when Ball State won 76-73. Ohio won at Ball State in a first-round game in 2010, a 85-77 overtime win, as the first of four wins in six days to claim the tournament championship as the No. 9 seed.
2022 MAC Tournament
Cleveland, Ohio | Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse
Thursday, March 10 Quarterfinals
Game 1: No. 1 Toledo vs. No. 8 Central Michigan, 11 a.m. (ESPN+)
Game 2: No. 4 Akron vs. No. 5 Buffalo, *30 minutes after prior game (ESPN+)
Game 3: No. 2 Kent State vs. No. 7 Miami, *30 minutes after prior game (ESPN+)
Game 4: No. 3 Ohio vs. No. 6 Ball State, *30 minutes after prior game (ESPN+)
Friday, March 11 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, *30 minutes following prior game (CBS Sports Network)
Saturday, March 12 Championship
Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)