Note: This story appears in the Friday, April 5 newspaper on Page B1.
Jeff Boals said there was a clear priority when he was hired to lead the Ohio University men’s basketball team.
“We’re going to hit the ground running in recruiting,” Boals said back on March 18.
Boals and the Bobcats will be sprinting when the late signing period arrives in two weeks. Junior guard Antonio Cowart Jr. has submitted his name into the NCAA Transfer Portal, Ohio confirmed on Wednesday.
Cowart is the fourth Bobcat player to enter the transfer portal since Boals was announced as the new Ohio head coach on March 17. Sophomore forward Jason Carter — who has since announced his transfer to Xaviver — sophomore guard Teyvion Kirk and freshman guard Torey James have all previously been found in the NCAA database.
“There’s been some change with guys leaving,” Boals said Wednesday. “We knew that probably would happen.”
Cowart joined the Bobcats as a junior college transfer for the 2018-19 season. He was a fixture in Ohio’s lineup as he appeared in all 31 games and made 26 starts.
Cowart averaged 26.2 minutes per game, and was regarded as the Bobcats’ best on-ball defender last season.
But the 6-foot-2 guard also struggled on the offensive end. Cowart averaged just 5.6 points per game and shot just 37 percent overall, including a 28.8 percent clip from 3-point range. Cowart averaged 3.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.9 turnovers per game.
Coupled with the graduation losses of forward Doug Taylor and wing Gavin Block, and the medical disqualification of junior guard James Gollon, Ohio will enter the April signing period with seven scholarship openings.
“It’s not normal. It’s not ideal. But it is what it is,” Boals said. “The big thing is finding the right fit. People who want to be here for the right reasons, who we really want in our program.”
Ohio currently has one recruit who has signed a National Letter of Intent, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s guard Lunden McDay. Another signed recruit, forward Ben Wight from Thomas Worthington HS in central Ohio, was granted a full release of his NLI last week by Ohio.
Since Wight was granted a full release, Boals is prohibited from talking about him specifically. McDay has not yet asked for a release.
“Communication has been great. I’m going to meet with (McDay) next week at some point,” Boals said. “But yeah, he’s good.”
More than half of Ohio’s 13 scholarship players in 2019-20 will be first-year players within the program. The projected returners include senior guard Jordan Dartis, junior wing Connor Murrell, sophomore guard Jason Preston, sophomore forward Ben Vander Plas, and redshirt freshmen forwards Mason McMurray and Nate Springs.
Dartis has been taking part in off-season workouts, Boals said Wednesday, but has not practiced since the end of the 2017-18 season. Preston became a starter at the point midway through last season, and Vander Plas was named the 2019 MAC Freshman of the Year.
Murrell earned more minutes and a spot in the rotation as last season wore on, after sitting out a big chunk of the 2018 calendar with a broken ankle and subsequent surgery. Springs did not play one minute last season and was slated for a redshirt early on. McMurray appeared in nine of 31 games, and should be eligible for a medical redshirt after undergoing hip surgery earlier this year.
With seven openings, six if McDay sticks as a Bobcat recruit, Boals and his new staff will be busy in the late signing period. Boals would prefer to build his program with high school recruits — “That’s how you grow a program, with a young core that gets better,” he said — but acknowledged Ohio will be looking at some junior college transfers and/or Division I transfers in this signing period.
Boals said the upcoming recruiting class doesn’t have him worried about the challenge of filling that many open scholarships. Rather, he’s embracing the change.
“To me, it’s exciting more than intimidating,” the coach said. “There’s going to be change…but you’re going to get the chance to bring in guys that want to be here for the right reasons and help build the culture that we’re going to have.
“We’re going to recruit high-level kids, players,” Boals continued. “We’re not going to be afraid to go against Ohio State, Xavier, Dayton, Indiana, whoever it may be. We just want find guys with the right fit.”
Boals has filled two of the four assistant coaching positions on his initial staff at Ohio.
Lamar Thornton joined Boals at Ohio from the start, and has been working as a Bobcat assistant for over two weeks. Ohio officially announced his hire last week.
Thornton served on Boals’ previous staff at Stony Brook for the last two years. He also had a tenure as a grad assistant and video coordinator at Toledo during 2016-17. In 2015-16, Thornton was an assistant at Hargrave Military Academy.
Thornton, an Ohio Dominican graduate and Columbus, Ohio native, was a student assistant at ODU (2011-14) and was an assistant at Hilliard Davidson High School (2014-15).
Jake Ness will join Ohio as Boals’ Director of Basketball Operations, the same post he held last season at Stony Brook.
Prior to Stony Brook, Ness worked for the Dallas Mavericks as a player development assistant and served as an assistant coach and strength and conditioning coach at Hargrave Military Academy with the post-graduate team.
Ness played at Hargrave as well, and then spent three years playing for Boise State. With the Broncos, he was a part of two NCAA Tournament teams (2013, ’15). He graduated from Boise State in 2015 (psychology) and added a Masters in athletic administration from Washington State in 2017.
Boals said he’s not expecting any more transplants from Stony Brook to join him in Athens. He anticipates having a full staff in place — hiring two more assistants — within a few days.
“The two we got already are passionate about what they do, and know how we do things and how I am, which is good,” Boals said.