Another tough assignment

Ohio junior guard Antonio Cowart Jr. has headed up the defensive efforts for the Bobcats agains the top scorers in the nation this season. He’ll get a shot at the No. 5 leading scorer on Thursday as Ohio visits Purdue.

Note: This preview appears in the Thursday, Dec. 20 newspaper on Page B1.

The best thing about Ohio’s game at Purdue on Thursday night isn’t the fact that it’s happening.

It’s the fact the Bobcats will get a home game in return in 2019.

Ohio (7-3) faces the Boilermakers (6-5) at 7 p.m. at Mackey Arena in the first part in a home-and-home series. The scheduling agreement came after Purdue worked out a deal with Ohio for a one-off football game series — played at Purdue in 2017.

Ohio head coach Saul Phillips is a big fan of the deal.

“We’re very fortunate to have the chance to have a home-and-home with a Big Ten team,” he said. “The goal is to play Power 5 (conference) schools on a neutral court as much as possible. If you can get them on your home court through any arrangement, you jump at that every day of the week.”

It’s been nearly 50 years since the two programs last met on the hardwood. Ohio won the last meeting, 80-79, in Athens in a then still brand new Convocation Center. The Boilermakers lead the all-time series 4-2.

Ohio is 23-67 all-time against the Big 10, and the last win was nearly seven years ago when the Bobcats upset Michigan, 65-60, in a Round of 32 NCAA Tournament game in Nashville on March 16, 2012.

Getting another upset over the Big Ten is a motivating factor, as usual, for Ohio. Add in the benefit of a return game, and you can see why Phillips is excited about the matchup. But that enthusiasm was tempered when he watched the Boilers play.

Pay no attention Purdue’s 6-5 record, or the fact its lost five of its last seven games. The Boilermakers have put up excellent numbers against the fourth-hardest schedule int the country to this point. KenPom.com ranks Purdue eighth nationally in offensive efficiency, and 67th in defensive efficiency.

“The reality of playing Purdue though is still very difficult,” Phillips admitted. “We’ll face some obstacles that we don’t see in other games.”

Foremost among them is Purdue junior guard Carsen Edwards, who ranks fifth in the country at scoring with 25.6 points per game. Ohio has already faced the nation’s top two scorers — Campbell’s Chris Clemons and Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis — and won both games. Ohio junior guard Antonio Cowart Jr. has earned rave reviews for his work on the defensive end, in particularly in those two matchups, and will have his hands full again.

“He will now have gone against the No. 1, 2 and 5 leading scorers in the nation all in his first month-and-a-half of playing Division I basketball,” Phillips said. “And really, it takes all five guys to defend those guys. That’s where it starts on the defensive end.”

Purdue also has 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms, and will have the size and aggression to attack Ohio on the glass. The Bobcats rank in the nation’s top 20 in defensive rebound percentage (77.7 percent).

“They play extremely hard and they’re a physical team. At home they can really crank it up on you in particular,” Phillips noted. “Lots of floor burns. They play exceptionally hard. They’re a typical Purdue team.”

For Ohio to spring the upset, the Bobcats will have continue to knock in timely 3-point shots, and make an improvement in regards to turnovers. The 3-point shooting has been better of late — Ohio is shooting 42.1 percent from the arc in the last four games.

But turnovers remain Ohio’s biggest concern. The Bobcats are averaging 16.6 turnovers per game, have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio for the season (-1.3 per game) and rank 316th nationally in turnover percentage (22.3 percent).

If the ‘Cats clean up the ball-handling issues, they’ll have a shot — at anyone — Phillips said.

“The mood within our team is that we believe we can play with anybody,” the coach said. “We think we have the talent to compete with anybody.

“It doesn’t take a lot of selling with this group.”

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

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