Familiar grounds, familiar foe

Ohio sophomore forward Ben Vander Plas (left) and the Bobcats take on Akron in the 2020 MAC Tournament Quarterfinals on Thursday, March 12, 2020 at 12 p.m. inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND — In one large, inescapable way, the 2020 Mid-American Conference Tournament will be unlike any other.

That’s due to the decision earlier this week to close off the event to the general public as the public concern level over the COVID-19 outbreak that has now seemingly touched every corner of the globe.

But for Ohio there will also be an air of familiarity. The Bobcats have a big game in Cleveland, and standing in the way will be Akron.

No. 8 seed Ohio (17-15) will put its season on the line Thursday when the Bobcats face No. 1-seed Akron (24-7) in the quarterfinals of the 2020 MAC Tournament. Tip off is set for 12 p.m. from Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

It will be the first meeting between the two teams in the MAC Tournament since the two sides met four times in five years in Cleveland between 2010-14. It was in that half-decade that OU-Akron became one of the hottest MAC rivalries.

It also came right in the middle of an incredible run for the Zips, then under former head coach Keith Dambrot. Dambrot guided Akron to seven straight appearances in the MAC Tournament Championship game, and nine in 11 years from 2007-2017.

In the heart of that sequence was this five-year string: Akron won the title in 2009, then lost to Ohio (81-75 in overtime) in the title game in 2010. The Zips won the championship in 2011, but lost to the Bobcats (64-63) in the title game in 2012.

Akron then bested OU in the title game, 65-46, in 2013. And the following year, UA topped OU 83-77 in a third-round game in Cleveland.

The OU coach that denied Akron potentially five-straight MAC titles? Well that was current Zips coach John Groce.

All that history is compelling, but will merely be in the background this time around. Ohio hasn’t won the tournament since 2012, and Zips’ last crown was in 2013. And neither side has even made the semfinals over the last two years.

Also hanging over this meeting is the attendance ban. Since the MAC made its announcement on Tuesday, several other conferences and even the NCAA have announced similar plans for the weekend and next week.

Groce told the Akron Beacon Journal it was a decision he respects, even though it likely cost the MAC the chance at a rowdy atmosphere on Thursday.

“Obviously, the priority is the health of people. There’s nothing more important than that,” Groce said. “That’s No. 1. I understand the situation, the gravity of it. I respect the decision.

“Having said that ... am I disappointed for our fans? For our students on campus that were planning on coming up? Our alumni? But most importantly, our players. It’s just unfortunate, but it’s outside our control.”

The Zips will enter as the deserving favorite. Akron won the regular-season title outright, Groce was tabbed the Coach of the Year, and four Zips landed on the All-MAC lists including dynamo junior guard Loren Cristian Jackson (19.8 ppg).

And Akron won both regular-season meetings — 88-86 in Athens and more recently 74-67 in Akron. The Bobcats, however, felt they let both games slip away.

“For sure,” said Ohio sophomore point guard Jason Preston on Monday after Ohio dispatched Central Michigan, 85-65, in the MAC’s first round.

“We played two great halves against them, and they’ve played two great halves against us. It should be a great matchup.”

Ohio landed a 50-point half in each game — in the second at home and in the first at Akron — but failed to win either game. The Bobcats couldn’t come back from a huge early hole in the first meeting, and couldn’t hold a 14-point second-half lead in the second.

OU already knows it’ll take 40 minutes to beat the Zips. Now it just has to find a way to stitch it all together.

“That’s a great question,” Ohio head coach Jeff Boals said Monday. “If you have the answer, let me know.”

Akron will have four seniors in its starting line up, plus a fourth-year junior, and a proven head coach who has been to the NCAA Tournament three times (twice at Ohio, once at Illinois).

The Bobcats have two sophomores starting, four freshmen in the rotation, and a head coach just now in his fourth season as a head coach and first at his alma mater. The Zips were better over the course of the regular-season, and won twice head-to-head.

There won’t be a big crowd in the building pushing for the plucky underdog.

All of that means nothing this time, the Bobcats believe. Where does the confidence spring from?

“All you want this time of year is an opportunity,” Boals said.

“It’s the fact we’re still in it,” he added. “We’re one of eight teams left, and we feel like we have as good a shot as anybody to win it.”

Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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