Heading west

Ohio sophomore forward Ben Vander Plas (center) and the Bobcats travel to NIU for an 8 p.m. start against the Huskies on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

The Bobcats are currently looking at a steep climb if they want to earn a bye for the 2020 Mid-American Conference Tournament in March.

To begin that climb, Ohio continues to emphasize the simplest plan: Take care of each ‘small’ step along the way.

That was the message after the Bobcats’ 88-86 home loss on Saturday to league-leading Akron. It will be the message this week as Ohio (10-10, 2-5 MAC) embarks on its longest road week of the season. OU will make the long trek to Northern Illinois (11-9, 4-3 MAC) for an 8 p.m. start on Tuesday night.

First-year head coach Jeff Boals had to choke down another near miss in conference play on Saturday. At this point, OU could be 5-2 instead of 2-5 if a trio of games had played out with a couple of plays reversed. Boals has said OU is ‘close’ for a few weeks now.

“Every single guy who played, at one point there’s one possession somewhere that you could have done something with a little bit more effort to change the outcome of the game, including myself,” Boals said Saturday.

Maybe it’s a hand down while closing out on a shooter. Missing a block out. Or maybe not running at a full sprint to get back defensively. It’s those plays within plays that Boals believes can flip the script for OU in this 2019-20 season.

“Those are game-winning plays. And I think we’re getting there,” Boals said. “We’re doing it, but just not consistent enough to win.”

The Bobcats showed more of those kinds of plays against Akron. OU turned a 16-point halftime deficit into a nail-biting finish inside a raucous Convo on Saturday. But will the ‘Cats mine those same kinds of effort plays in a more sedate environment on the road on Tuesday?

To put it bluntly, was the fine 20 minutes in the second half against Akron a sign of things to come, or a blip on the radar?

“We had just little things like just having our hands up on ball screens, and (freshman guard) Lunden (McDay) diving on the floor for a loose ball,” said sophomore forward Ben Vander Plas, explaining Saturday’s second-half turnaround.

“Little things like that can do so much for for us as a team.”

Ohio begins MAC play this week in a three-way tie for 10th place in the 12-team league. OU’s only two conference wins have come against Eastern Michigan, which sits in 12th at 0-7 in conference play. The Bobcats sit firmly in the middle of the pack in most statistical categories. It’s not a resume of a team, at this point anyway, that appears ready to make a rapid turnaround.

The Bobcats have been capable, in spurts, but lacking when looking at full 40-minute sample sizes thus far. OU pushed Toledo and Akron in competitive home losses over the last week, but failed to finish off either game with a victory.

“We got to just be consistent, every-day, people,” said senior guard Jordan Dartis.

“We got to keep moving forward. We still got 11 games left in the conference and we’re on to the biggest games of the year,” he added. “I think we’ll be ready in time.”

Ohio’s next step will be to figure out how to contain a high-scoring small guard, and pin a loss on NIU. OU was 6-1 against the Huskies from 2012-2018, but dropped all three meetings against NIU last season.

The Huskies ended Ohio’s season in 2019 with an 80-61 win in DeKalb in a MAC Tournament First Round game; it was the final game of the Saul Phillips era with OU.

NIU returns two starters from that team, but they are players the Bobcats will remember well. Senior guard Eugene German, who averaged 18 points and nearly three 3s per game against OU last season, returns and has emerged as the MAC’s leading scorer with 19.6 points per game.

German leads both Akron’s Loren Cristian Jackson and Toledo’s Marreon Jackson in the MAC scoring race. Last week, Marreon Jackson netted 29 points against OU, and Loren Cristian Jackson followed with a career-high 35 points against the ‘Cats in the Convo on Saturday.

The other returner of note for NIU is senior center Lacey James, who exploded for career-highs of 20 points and 14 rebounds in NIU’s 72-66 OT win in the Convo last season.

Can the Bobcats’ figure out how to give maximum effort, and smart play, for 40 minutes? Can OU come up with a defensive plan to contain a high-scoring guard? Will Ohio finally start climbing the MAC ladder?

Boals, of course, said it’s a mater of when, not if.

“I love my guys, I love our team, their mindsets,” he said. “We’ve lost some games that we’ve had a chance to win, but we’ve been in pretty much every game we’ve played.

“I gotta try to figure it out.”

Dartis closing in

Dartis enters Tuesday within striking distance of the career made 3-pointers record at Ohio.

Dartis has 287 career made 3s, and trails the program leader — Nick Kellogg (290, 2011-14) — by just three long-ball makes.

Dartis is shooting 43.0 percent from 3 for his career, which is just behind the program record set by Tommy Freeman (44.3) set from 2006-2010.

In the MAC list, Dartis trails five players (including Kellogg) in the career made 3s list. Toledo’s Nate Navigato (2016-19) is the MAC’s current leader with 309.

Among MAC players who averaged at least two made 3s per game with more than 200 career makes, Dartis trails only Toledo’s Nick Moore (2000-03) in career 3-point percentage (43.5 percent).

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

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