MAC season heating up

Ohio first-year men’s basketball coach Jeff Boals looks for an explanation during the Bobcats’ home loss to Bowling Green on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. The Bobcats play four of their next six games on the road, and won’t be favored in any of them.

Hard as it is to believe, the Bobcats were gifted a reasonable schedule to start to Mid-American Conference play.

Ohio (9-7, 1-2 MAC) hasn’t taken advantage of the opportunity however.

The Bobcats’ first three games included a road game at Western Michigan — regarded as the 11th or 12th best team in the league at the season’s start. Then came home games against Eastern Michigan (picked fifth in the West) and a home bout against the preseason favorite in Bowling Green.

Ohio was slow to get started at WMU, and paid the price in the first conference road game for most of the roster. OU led by double figures against EMU, withstood a second-half run, and then held on for a win.

And then BG happened. Ohio dominated the first half, and proceeded to allow 50 second-half points in a loss that surely dogged Ohio head coach Jeff Boals’ entire weekend.

“I told the guys, we should have won the game,” Boals said Saturday after the home loss. “I’m disappointed we lost, but it’s an unforgiving league.”

The Bobcats are about to find out, potentially, just how unforgiving it can be. Ohio’s next six games including four MAC road trips, with two of the longest trips in the league. OU, according to kenpom.com, will be major underdogs in each of the next six games; the Bobcats won’t have better than a 36 percent chance to win any of the six games according to the analytical data website.

The early conference-season gauntlet begins immediately. Ohio will be at Buffalo (10-6, 1-2 MAC) on Tuesday night for a 7 p.m. start at Alumni Arena. The Bulls lost their head coach — Nate Oats jumped up the ladder to Alabama — and four starters from last year’s team, but UB has won four of the last five MAC Tournaments.

Buffalo is still playing at a fast pace, will rotate in nine or 10 players, and will have as much athleticism as team in the league.

“You’re going to Buffalo, who’s going to be an athletic, tough, physical team,” Boals said. “Just like us, they’re searching for a win.”

Buffalo opened MAC play at 0-2, but won on Friday night at Miami, 83-78. The Bulls started the game by giving up an 11-0 run, trailed 43-36 at the half, but rallied in the second half for their first conference victory.

Buffalo plays at a fast pace. UB’s 75.8 possessions per game is sixth highest in the country, and the Bulls take just 14.3 seconds per possession (third-lowest time in the country). UB remains a terror on the offensive glass, where it’s 34.9 percent rebound rate ranks inside the nation’s top 30.

As for familiar faces, those are in short supply for the Bulls. Junior guard Jayvon Graves is back as a returner, and has elevated his game (17.2 ppg). Senior guard Davonta Jordan (12.9 ppg, 5.4 apg) returns as the lead point guard, and remains one of the best on-ball defenders in the league.

But much of the rotation is new and/or unproven. Texas Tech transfer Josh Mballa (10.5 points, 9.1 rebounds) is the new center. Middle Tennessee State transfer Antwain Johnson (9.8 ppg) has been inserted as the third guard. Sophomore forward Jeenathan Williams (10.9 ppg) has become a starter after being a rotation player a year ago.

So far, Ohio as had issues playing the proverbial ‘full 40 minutes.’ And Boals might start looking for solutions from the bench in the form of more minutes. The bench is playing just 17.9 percent of the available minutes; OU ranks No. 351 in the country in the category.

Ohio will be on the road again on Saturday, at Eastern Michigan. But that’s in the future. Boals’ focus is one game and one game only.

“We’ve got to come back ready to work tomorrow (Sunday) and figure out how we’re going to beat Buffalo,” the coach said.

“You have to bring it every day.”

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

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