Ready or not, the end of the season has arrived for the Bobcats.
Ohio (15-15, 7-10 Mid-American Conference) wraps up the regular season on Friday, with a 7 p.m. tipoff against rival Miami (12-18, 5-12 MAC) at Millett Hall in Oxford.
The Bobcats will have some real stakes on the line, besides the usual benefits that go with winning the ‘Battle of the Bricks.’ Ohio knows if it secures a rare road win on Friday, it will return to Athens for a home first-round game in the 2020 MAC Tournament on Monday night.
If Ohio loses, then the Bobcats could be staring at a trip to Kalamazoo and a matchup with Western Michigan on Monday night.
OU, just 3-8 on the road this season and 1-7 in MAC road games, has a simple problem to solve. IF the Bobcats can win a road game, then they won’t have to worry about trying to do it again in the postseason tournament.
“We’ve mentioned it. If we win, we get a home site,” said Ohio head coach Jeff Boals. “That’s our mindset, that’s our focus.”
It’ll be easier said than done. Sure, OU ripped Miami 77-46 in the first meeting between the two rivals this season in the Convo. But the RedHawks missed 24 straight shots in the first half of that game and trailed 34-11 at the break en route to the most lopsided Ohio win in the long-running series since the 1940s.
It’s a scenario not likely to be repeated.
Ohio is 5-3 in its last eight games, but Miami has been better as well with a 3-5 mark in the same span. And the RedHawks have won three in a row at home, including a win over Bowling Green within the last week.
“Some of that (first game) was them, some of that was us,” Boals said. “It was kind of a perfect storm.”
And then there’s the prospects of Ohio being at less than full strength for the rematch. Fifth-year senior guard Jordan Darts missed Tuesday’s loss at Akron with an ankle injury. Redshirt freshman forward Mason McMurray also sat out the game with illness.
During Tuesday’s loss, freshman guard Lunden McDay missed stretches with lower leg cramps. And OU’s two best interior players — center Sylvester Ogbonda and forward Ben Vander Plas — tweaked ankles and had to miss stretches of time.
Not one of those players will be entering Friday’s finale with a clean bill of health. Boals said he hasn’t ruled anyone out, just yet, but there will likely be a couple of game-time decisions to be made.
“It’s March, everyone in the country is a little banged up,” Boals said. “It’s part of the deal. We’ll see what happens.”
The lone exception appears to be sophomore guard Jason Preston, who turned in his first career triple-double — 15 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists — in the first win over Miami this season.
Preston has played an absurd amount of minutes this season, and neither he nor Boals is going to back off now. Preston has played the full 40 minutes in 16 games this season, including each of the last six.
According to kenpom.com, Preston leads the entire country by playing 96.6 percent of his team’s available minutes this season. Only three OU players in the last 20 years have played more than 90 percent of the team’s minutes in a season — Preston, Jaaron Simmons (2015-17), and Brandon Hunter (2002-03).
Preston said he’s good to go for however minutes remain this year on
“I’m straight. I don’t really have any injuries. It’s not something I haven’t done before,” Preston said Tuesday. “In AAU I used to play like the whole game. I’m fine.
“It’s money time now. There’s no time for days off.”
Boals has seen Preston carry Ohio much of the season. He’s also seen him struggle to finish late in a couple games as well, such as at Akron. But there’s no changing the Bobcats’ roster at this point in the year.
If OU wants a home game for the tournament, Preston will have play major minutes. If Ohio wants to win games in the tournament, Preston will have to play the same kind of load he has all season.
“But he’s our guy. I’ll ride with him all day long,” Boals said.
Where Ohio rides to, after Friday, depends on the result. Miami, will be locked into the 12th seed with a loss, but can climb no higher than No. 10 with a win.
For Ohio, here’s a look at how the Bobcats can end up with either the No. 7, No. 8 or No. 9 seed.
Ohio earns the No. 7 if: Ohio beats Miami, AND EMU wins at Toledo on Friday night; OR Ohio loses to Miami, AND EMU beats Toledo, AND CMU beats WMU.
Ohio earns the No. 8 if: Ohio beats Miami AND Toledo defeats EMU on Friday night; OR Ohio loses to Miami AND Toledo defeats EMU and CMU defeats WMU.
Ohio falls to No. 9 if: Ohio loses to Miami, AND Toledo beats EMU, AND WMU beats CMU.
If OU does fall to No. 9, it will play Monday at the No. 8 seed (in this scenario) Western Michigan.
If the Bobcats earn the No. 8 seed, they will face Eastern Michigan in the Convo on Monday.
If Ohio gets the No. 7 seed, then it most likely face the winner of the CMU-WMU game in the Convo
The Bobcats will travel to Miami with plenty of luggage. If Ohio is tasked with playing on the road on Monday night, it will not travel back to Athens after the game on Friday and will stay on the road as long as it stays alive in the MAC Tournament.
“It’s a matter of going on the road and winning. Then in the tournament anything can happen,” Boals said. “It’s been proven throughout the course of the season that anybody can beat anybody on a given night.
“Get a home game, win that, go up to the neutral site and let the chips fall where they may.”