The Bobcats were looking for answers, wins weren’t to be found, and the season was slipping away.
Ohio head coach Jeff Boals thought he found the team’s biggest culprit — defense. OU was just 289th in the country in defensive efficiency at the time, in late January, and if the Bobcats’ fortunes were going to change that needed to get better quickly.
Sophomores Ben Vander Plas and Jason Preston, thrust into the roles of team leaders despite their relative inexperience, took it upon themselves to help Ohio change course.
“Those guys really took ownership of it and put it upon themselves to get us better there,” Boals said in February. “They owned it, and we got better.”
Ohio finished the year with a 17-15 record. And over those six weeks, the Bobcats’ defensive efficiency ranking climbed from No. 289 to No. 161. Preston and Vander Plas led, and Ohio followed along.
“We’re just trying to make sure we’re locked in and focused, and hold everyone accountable,” Preston explained in early March.
“Harder practices. No lackadaisical anything.”
Preston and Vander Plas emerged as building blocks for Ohio moving forward. The season ended too quickly, but the Bobcats believe they’ll have as good a one-two punch in the league with the pair of sophomores. The reason for Ohio’s strong finish in 2019-20 is also the same for confidence when the next season begins.
The Bobcats return the league’s best pass-first point guard (Preston), and a forward (Vander Plas) who became one of the toughest to handle one-on-one in the league. The duo learned on the fly how to lead a team over the past six months. That experience, and talent, will have Ohio picking up in a much better place whenever the next season begins.
Boals, too, will be looking to further impact the program next season. His first was spent relying in large part on holdovers from Saul Phillips’ tenure; Preston and Vander Plas were both Phillips’ players that shined in their second full seasons, fifth-year guard Jordan Dartis was the team’s best floor-spacer, and freshman phenom Lunden McDay was signed before Boals was hired. Even freshman wing Ben Roderick was likely to sign late with Ohio whoever the coach was at that point after not receiving coveted offers from Xavier or Ohio State.
But Boals filled in the gaps admirably around that group with personnel he called in. Graduate transfer Sylvester Ogbonda was a plug-and-play option — and a good one — at center. Freshman guard Miles Brown became a defensive spark plug and eventually even was able to spell Preston for brief minutes at the point.
And Boals has another chance to get the Ohio roster to the point where it can be a contender for a championship. The Bobcats have some building blocks in place, a foundation, and can now look to add more depth and talent.
Ohio will lose two players from the its rotation this season — Dartis and Ogbonda — and both will leave major holes. Dartis is one of the best shooters in program history, and Ogbonda delivered the interior presence defensively that no one else on the roster was capable of producing.
Boals has already added two freshman signees for next season, presumably to fill the slots left by Dartis and Ogbonda. But, Ohio has operated since January with two unfilled scholarships. OU had one empty all season, and the other became free when freshman Marvin Price left Ohio after the fall semester.
Boals will likely fill at least one, if not both of spots, before next season. Ohio will again be in the market for a graduate transfer big man — unless I miss my guess — and could use another perimeter oriented player like a small forward or shooting guard.
And before the full roster breakdown, remember it’s college basketball. Personnel changes have been the norm for every program across the country for the last five years. It wouldn’t be shocking to see a transfer or two before next season despite the relatively good chemistry the group displayed in 2019-20.
Jordan Dartis (6-3, guard) — The gifted shooter with the quick trigger showed toughness this season, and more of a knack for the dirty plays — charges taken and loose ball scraps — than he had in his previous season. Dartis averaged 12.8 points per game and despite shooting a career-low 38.1 percent from 3, he finished as the Ohio career leader in made 3-pointers (314) and second in 3-point shooting percentage (42.6). He was an every-game starter for four full seasons, one of the best floor spacers in the MAC (just look at OU’s offense without him last year compared to this season), and will be sorely missed.
Sylvester Ogbonda (6-10, center) — Ogbonda started each of the 32 games this season and was instrumental in OU’s defensive improvement. He averaged 6.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game but doesn’t begin to measure his worth as an interior defender. Ogbonda didn’t block a ton of shots, but was excellent in walling up around the rim. He wasn’t a terrific finisher at the rim, but he shot 31.3 percent from 3 and was able to pull defending bigs away from the bucket. Boals would love to find another grad transfer just like him for next season.
Marvin Price (6-5, wing) — Price missed a big chunk of the preseason with a knee injury, and appeared in just seven games (7.4 minutes per) before leaving during the semester break. I’m not sure why it didn’t work for Price, who ended up in junior college — his sixth different school in five years. He had potential as a three-level scorer, but clearly had not yet earned major playing time before his departure.
The known commodities
Jason Preston (6-4, guard) — He was the Bobcats’ best player, a triple-double threat most nights, and delivered one of the 10 best seasons for a PG in Ohio history. A Second Team All-MAC pick, Preston averaged 16.8 points, 7.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game, while shooting north of 51 percent overall for a guard and a solid 40.7 percent from 3.
Preston became Boals’ extension on the floor. He played too many minutes throughout the year, but Boals knew his team’s best chance of winning night in and night out was dependent on No. 0 being on the floor. Gifted with length, surprising athleticism, great court vision and a newfound long-range accuracy, the sky appears to be the limit for Preston.
Ben Vander Plas (6-8, forward) — Vander Plas was pigeon-holed into being a ‘space’ guy in his first full season, due to the roster and health of the club, and took a vast majority of his shots from 3-point range. This season, Vander Plas got back to the block on a regular basis and showed he was a capable in-out scorer. Vander Plas averaged 15.7 points and a team-best 6.9 rebounds this season, with the bulk of his work coming off the dribble or on postups. He shot just 29.9 percent from 3 and only 59.3 percent from the foul line, which indicates this Third Team All-MAC pick still has room to improve moving forward. Vander Plas also gave OU a second player — he averaged 2.8 assists per game — with which it run offense through.
Lunden McDay (6-3, guard) — Tough, gritty and smart, McDay started 29 of 32 games this season and by January was looked as a veteran. Tasked with guarding the other team’s best offensive player most nights, McDay still averaged 8.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 38.6 percent from 3-point range. And McDay led Ohio in ‘winning plays’ — those loose ball pick ups late in games, the tipped rebound that ended up in OU’s hands, the deflection that started a break the other way. A member of the All-MAC Freshman Team, McDay was the best first-year player on a team stacked with them.
Ben Roderick (6-5, wing) — The most highly regarded player of Boals’ first recruiting class, Roderick had a tough start. A sprained knee took him out late in the preseason. Just back from that, Roderick broke a bone in his hand a few weeks later to cost him another month. But despite those setbacks, Roderick gave a glimpse of his potential upside as a sharp-shooter. He played in 23 games, with five starts, and logged more than 19 minutes per game. He averaged 6.0 points per game, shot 36.7 percent from 3 and averaged better than 1.5 made 3s (36 total) per game. He could step in and fill Dartis’ role next season, but I think he’s barely scratched the surface of what he could be in terms of a defender/rebounder.
Miles Brown (6-1, guard) — Like Roderick, Brown had a preseason knee injury that retarded his development this season. Booked as a scorer, Brown struggled in that department as he shot just 23.9 percent, 10.5 percent from 3, and averaged just 1.6 points per game over his 21 appearances. But that didn’t affect him defensively, and he was neck-and-neck with McDay as the Bobcats’ best defender in terms of keeping an opponent in front of him. Brown needs some work, or perhaps confidence, offensively, but Boals found a place for him despite the roadblocks this season.
Nolan Foster (6-10, center) — Foster, in August, would be a prime candidate for a redshirt, I thought. I was wrong. Foster was good enough, soon enough, to earn the back-up center’s role with Ohio and earned valuable playing time (and practice time against Ogbonda) all season. He averaged just 8.8 minutes over 29 games, with 2.4 points and 1.6 rebounds per game. He shot 40.0 percent from 3-point range, and will be one guy Boals will work hard with over the off-season to prepare him for more of a load next year.
Connor Murrell (6-7, wing) — Murrell had the toughest season out of any player on the roster. He was primed for a major role in the preseason before an abdomen injury shut him down for nearly two full months. He returned for three games, then was out for another two weeks. He was part of the rotation over the last 10 games, but just was never able to find a rhythm or flow — as you might expect after missing that much time. Murrell did get 10.2 minutes per game over his 14 appearances and averaged 2.2 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. He shot just 26.2 percent from the field and was 0 of 15 from 3-point range. With a more full roster, Murrell probably is not pressed into service this season but the Bobcats needed someone to fill some minutes and Murrell did the work under tough circumstances.
Nate Springs (6-10, center) — Springs appeared in 21 games, 8.5 minutes per game, and shot 40 percent from 3-point range. He’s a natural shooter but didn’t turn the corner in other aspects of his games — defense, rebounding, protecting the rim. He averaged 3.0 points and 1.3 rebounds per game, and has potential — but he was seldom used down the stretch as the rotation tightened. He’s still young — he was a redshirt freshman this year — and I’m not sure Boals knows exactly what he yet with the young big.
Mason McMurray (6-7, forward) — McMurray, like Springs, didn’t get much run this season and the book is probably still open whether he can be major contributor moving forward. He was injured a couple times throughout the course of the year — head collision in practice, illness, turned ankle — but still appeared in 18 games with one start and 12.3 minutes per appearance. Most of his shots came from 3, where he shot just 28.2 percent, but his motor meant he continued to get opportunities until late in the season.
Michael Brown (5-10, guard) — The twin brother of Miles, Michael was the first of the pair to get in a game and to score this season at Ohio. The walk-on appeared in just five games however.
John Tenerowicz (6-1, guard) — The sophomore completed his send season as a walk-on at Ohio and has all the makings of a guy who will be with the program for four years. He logged four appearances.
Ohio signed two incoming freshmen during the early signing period, you can swap them in for Dartis and Ogbonda, but still has two open scholarships to try to fill this spring.
Colin Granger (6-9, forward) — A high-motor, wide-shouldered forward/center out of Suwanee, Ga., Granger will add some physicality to the paint. Rated as one of top 27 players in his state, and one of the three best centers, Granger is capable of some monster games — he had games of 20 points and 17 rebounds, and 20 and 15, this season — and was productive with more than 1,000 career points and 600 career rebounds.
Jalen White (6-5, guard) — White was lightly recruited, and committed early to OU, prior to his senior season at Sam Rayburn HS in Texas. Known as a top-notch shooter, White blossomed this winter and averaged 22.4 points per game while becoming his high school’s all-time single-seasons scoring leader with 763 points. He could be a prime candidate to help fill some of those minutes that Dartis provided this season.