Bobcats seek to end skid

Ohio sophomore guard Jason Preston (left) leads the country in assists with 158 through 21 games. The Bobcats play at Ball State on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020.

For both Jordan Dartis specifically, and the Bobcats as a whole, the margin separating them from where they’d like to be is miniscule.

But they’ve yet still to cross it.

Ohio (10-11, 2-6 Mid-American Conference) will try, again, to take the next step in its evolution on Saturday with a 1 p.m. start at Ball State (11-9, 4-3 MAC). The Bobcats have lost three in a row, and is just 3-5 in true road games, and OU remains stuck near the bottom of the overall conference standings.

But a host of near misses has been the prevailing theme for Ohio during the first half of conference play. The margin between winning and losing, as the ‘Cats are now fully aware, is a slim one.

There have been two point losses to Akron and at Northern Illinois in the last two games. There was a three-point setback at Buffalo. None of OU’s six conference losses have been by more than nine points.

Throughout the last month, Boals has hammered home the notion that every play matters, whether it comes in the first minute or the last. There are no minor details.

And yet, the gut punches keep coming.

“It’s like Groundhog Day,” said Ohio head coach Jeff Boals, referring to the Bill Murray movie and not the day marked on your calendar. “It’s frustrating.

“It’s got to upset you individually. In the game of basketball, individuals have to make plays.”

For Dartis, a fifth-year guard, the margin is also slim. The Newark, Ohio native has tallied 289 career 3-pointers, and now stands just one shy of tying the program’s record of 290 — set by Nick Kellogg (2011-14).

But, like the team, Dartis has found bridging that final space problematic. Dartis is shooting 36.7 percent from 3-point range this season — a nearly eight percent below his career mark prior to the year — and has been in a shooting funk of late. In his last five games, Dartis is just 9 of 39 (23.1 percent) from long range.

Getting Dartis on track, and over the hump, could very well help Ohio do the same.

“In the games he’s shot the ball well, we win,” Boals said. “The ones he’s shot poorly, we seem to lose.

“He can take tough shots and make tough shots, and not a lot of guys can do that. We need him to shoot and make tough shots.”

Meanwhile, sophomore forward Ben Vander Plas needs to make free throws. It’s the been the one glaring weakness in his game in his second season, and — with the all the close games — it’s loomed large. Vander Plas is having an all-conference caliber kind of season (15.5 points, 6.9 rebounds per game, above 50 percent from the field), but he’s shooting just 55.3 percent from the foul line.

Vander Plas missed seven free throws in OU’s two-point loss at NIU on Tuesday. Boals can empathize; he was a career 62.2 percent free throw shooter during his own college career.

What leads him to believe that Vander Plas will turn it around is what he sees every day. Vander Plas is among the team’s best workers and has been — all season — trying to iron out the free throw issues.

“He was really down. He knows that impacted the outcome of the game,” Boals said. “But I’d go to war with him any day of the week.

“We just got to keep building confidence. He’s got to keep getting the reps and work through it.”

Ohio will need to maximize every chance it gets at Ball State. The Cardinals have dropped two in a row themselves and will be circling the proverbial wagons to halt the skid in Worthen Arena. And few teams in the MAC defend at the level that BSU is capable of producing.

Ball State ranks 44th nationally in defensive efficiency, 93.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, and that number has only gotten better in MAC play. The Cardinals, in conference games only, are tops in the league is allowing just 91.9 points per 100 possessions. No team in the league has been better in keeping opponents off the offensive glass (24.4 percent offensive rebound percentage allowed), or at two-point shooting defense (44.6 percent). It’s a dicey proposition for Boals, who has to keep some of his key shooters on track against a pack-line defense that might be the best in the conference.

“We got to do what we did in the second half against Akron,” Boals said, referring to the 53 points scored a week ago.

“Move more, set better screens, just the overall spacing,” he added. “That has to be there because you’re not going to be able to drive into a game…against this team.”

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

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