Note: This story appears in the Sunday, Sept. 29 newspaper on Page B1.
The Bobcats are officially on the clock, and the countdown has begun.
Jeff Boals’ inaugural season as Ohio’s men’s basketball coach will tip off in about six weeks. The Bobcats opened preseason practice on Wednesday.
As you might expect, the Bobcats were buzzing with the official start of practice. But Boals, a former Ohio standout and OU alum, knows that enthusiasm will fade eventually. It’s his job to make sure the habits curated during this period remain, however.
“We had great energy. But everyone has great energy on Day One. It’s about sustainability and consistency,” Boals said Thursday, before the Bobcats started practice No. 2 of the season.
“We’re working hard. And that’s what you want to see.”
Ohio, after consecutive 14-win seasons, had a regime shift last spring. Former head coach Saul Phillips was non-renewed after five seasons, and the entire coaching staff followed. The Bobcats graduated multiple-year contributors Gavin Block and Doug Taylor, and saw fourth-year junior guard James Gollon hang it up after a major injury.
Ohio’s top two leading scorers — Jason Carter and Teyvion Kirk — transferred to Xavier and Colorado State, respectively, after Boals’ hiring in March. Guards Torey James and Antonio Cowart Jr. left the program soon thereafter.
Ohio returns just three players with any sort of playing experience in 2018-19. Sophomore forward Ben Vander Plas was named the MAC Freshman of the Year, sophomore guard Jason Preston was named to the MAC All-Freshman squad, and junior wing Connor Murrell was a rotation player by season’s end.
Ohio has seven new players on the roster, including six true freshmen.
It’s a cocktail of turnover and rebuilding that wouldn’t appear to inspire quick change in Ohio’s basketball fortunes.
But the Bobcats took the plunge with the new system in place. Boals was thrilled with the off-season work showed by the roster as physical development took center stage during the summer months.
If the Bobcats were in a funk over the last 24 months, then, now, they’re out of it, said Jordan Dartis — the only senior on the roster.
“A change was needed for a fresh start. We got it with Coach Boals,” Dartis said.
Dartis himself is eager for a new start. A hip injury late in the 2017-18 season has left him sidelined for 18 months. He didn’t practice, let alone play, last year. Now he, and graduate transfer Sylvester Ogbonda (Georgia Tech), will help usher a fresh-faced bunch of Bobcats as the program tries to rebuild itself.
Dartis knows what the external expectations are for Ohio this season. He’s not buying it. He’s cleared to be a full participant again, he’s seen the work done in the summer, and he’s believing in the promise of things to come.
“With this new group, we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Dartis said. “We had a good couple years, and then it went kind of grim. It was very grim. And you felt that in the gym.
“But if you want to believe, believe in Coach Boals,” he continued. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s been at a high major and knows what it takes. He’s got us in here doing the same stuff.”
But Boals won’t be doing it with the same players he had at Ohio State — his high major stop as an assistant. Or even with the crop he had Stony Brook, where he had three seasons experience before former Ohio AD Jim Schaus — yeah, he’s moved on too — handed him the job in March.
What Boals will have is a short group of proven commodities. Dartis is one of the best shooters in MAC history, and having back will be a boon. Preston became the team’s point guard last season, an every-game starter, and now is firmly entrenched in the role — with an added growth spurt to boot. Vander Plas emerged as a potential double-digit scorer a year ago.
But after that, the returners include the lanky Murrell, who had spot duty at best last season for OU. The ‘Cats also return two redshirt freshmen in center Nate Springs and forward Mason McMurray.
With Ogbonda, Ohio hopes to have a plug-and-play center. At 6-10, and with four years in a high major program, Ogbonda looks the part but has never before been asked to play major minutes. Still, he should be a stabilizing force inside.
Then there’s the youth movement. Ohio has six true freshmen joining the roster, with five starting on scholarship. Guard Lunden McDay (Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary), signed by the previous regime, is thought to be a potential contributor right away. The same could be said for Ben Roderick, a 6-5 shooter out of Olentangy Liberty and last year’s Ohio High School Gatorade Player of the Year.
Center Nolan Foster (6-10, Mattawan, Michigan), combo wing/forward Marvin Price (6-5, Baltimore, Md., Patterson HS) and twin brothers Miles and Michael Brown (Rochester, N.Y., Northstar Christian Academy) round out the half-dozen first-year players.
It’s a season of change for Ohio, but change doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Vander Plas said there’s been tangible change in energy in the Convo that has nothing to do with Boals’ efforts on social media or the free coffee he’s been handing out in the Baker Center. The remnants from last year took the plunge. They’re all in on Boals and Ohio.
“For the guys who played and were on the team last year, we know what it feels like to be on the losing side of things,” Vander Plas said. “We don’t want to feel that any more. We want to win as many games as possible.
“It’s how competitive we’ve been, and the competitive things we’ve put into our lifting and our practices. One-possession games. Winner wins, loser runs,” he added. “That kind of stuff has brought a whole new energy to us.”
Ohio opens the season, publicly, on Saturday, Nov. 2 with a home exhibition game against Capital in the Convo. The season opener will be on Tuesday, Nov. 5 at St. Bonaventure.
Right now, the Bobcats have energy, enthusiasm and belief. It’ll take all three, and a lot more, to win games however. Ohio has tried to change the attitude with a new staff in place, and the players worked to change their bodies in the off-season.
Now, the ‘Cats have six weeks to get ready for when they start keeping score. Boals wants to see effort, consistency and for players to take roles/step up during the preseason. There will be growing pains. Ohio just has to fight through it.
“This is new for everybody,” Boals said. “It’s going to be a day-by-day, game-by-game process.
“We’re going to worry about us and continue to win the moment. Work hard every day and see what happens.”
On the shelf
Freshman guard Miles Brown, a 6-1 freshman, will be out of action for the next six to eight weeks, Boals said Thursday.
“He had a minor knee situation. Nothing major. He’ll be back from that,” Boals said.
Brown’s brother, twin Michael, is a preferred walk-on at the moment. Both Browns, and every other scholarship member of the roster, have been with the team since early summer.