The Ohio Bobcats entered the 2020-21 season with some question marks.
Ohio had Jason Preston established as the point guard, but none of the players on the Bobcats’ roster had ever played a conference tournament game in Cleveland.
Like every other team in the country, Ohio was denied a chance to finish its conference tournament a season ago.
The Bobcats were getting ready to play in the Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinals before COVID-19 caused the cancelation of the event.
Ohio was playing well at the time, but didn’t get the chance to compete in Cleveland.
The new season started successfully. Ohio’s first loss was a toss-up 77-75 decision at Illinois, a game the Bobcats led in the closing seconds.
Ohio followed that up by crushing Cleveland State at home, 101-46, in a game that featured an NCAA record 40-0 run. The win was made even more impressive by the fact that Cleveland State eventually qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
The early part of Ohio’s season took a turn though after an 81-67 loss at Marshall. It was the start of a three-game losing streak, the Bobcats giving up an average of 84.6 points per game in those defeats.
Preston suffered an injury in January, further complicating the course of Ohio’s season.
The Bobcats were just 7-6 overall, and 3-4 in the MAC, after an 89-79 loss at Kent State on Jan. 16.
Of course, Ohio righted the ship in a big way. Despite not playing for 21 days due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests on the team during one stretch, the Bobcats still had a six-game winning streak before losing the eventual regular season finale to Buffalo.
Ohio roared through the MAC Tournament with three wins by an average of 14.6 points, returning to the NCAA Tournament.
A No. 13 seed, Ohio upset No. 4 Virginia 62-58 to give the program its fourth NCAA Tournament victory in the last 12 seasons.
“It just speaks to our culture,” Preston said. “Our culture that Jeff Boals — Coach Boals, I mean, I’m sorry — has done for our program. I don’t know if you saw any of our elimination games, but just the energy has been amazing. From the start of the game, they’re waving their towels. It just shows everyone who’s not playing, 1 through 15, we’re all locked in. We’re rooting for each other, we’re all cool with each other.”
The run came to an end on Monday with a 72-58 loss to No. 5 Creighton.
Ohio closed the season at 17-8 overall, winning 10 of the final 12 games over the course of the last two months.
“Very, very good team, well coached, and I hope they continue this journey,” Ohio coach Jeff Boals said of Creighton, which is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. “Really, really proud of our guys. I thought they battled, competed. This is a special group on and off the floor. The way they represented Ohio University, the way they represent their families, our basketball program is just a high character group of guys.”
Creighton will continue its journey on Sunday against the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, Gonzaga.
While the Blue Jays will try and knock off unbeaten Gonzaga, Ohio will start to look at what’s next.
The Bobcats certainly have the opportunity to field a roster next year that would make them the prohibitive MAC favorites.
Dwight Wilson III, a transfer from James Madison, is the only senior on the roster. He recorded his 1,000th career point on Monday and gave Ohio plenty of punch in the post, averaging 14.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
Wilson, like all seniors across the country, have the option to return for another season. The NCAA Division I Council announced in October that winter sport student-athletes competing in Division I will receive an additional season of competition and an additional year in which to complete it.
In theory, Boals can return the entire roster intact, but whether or not Wilson opts to return is yet to be decided. Of course, transfers are always a possibility for any program in the offseason.
Preston’s future also is uncertain, as a professional career could be on the table.
Preston could test the waters of a professional career, either in the NBA or overseas, or return for his fourth season in Ohio’s program.
“I can’t really think about that now,” Preston said after Monday’s game. “I’ll take it day by day, pray about it, talk to God about it, talk to Coach Boals about it. We’ll weigh our options, and we’ll see what we’ll do.”
Preston certainly turned in a banner season for Ohio. In 19 games, he averaged 16.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game.
Preston had 31 points, eight assists and zero turnovers in the game against Illinois, garnering him national attention that lasted throughout the postseason run.
“To see where he’s come in a five-year time frame, the adversity he’s overcome, and to show the character he’s shown, the perseverance he’s shown, the leadership he’s shown — he’s a great teammate, great student, very appreciative and thankful,” Boals said. “He teaches me a lot of lessons.
“I’m just a small part of what he’s done and what he’s going to do. Biggest thing is I’m thankful I was able to coach him for a couple years. Like I said, he’s going to have a decision to make here. We’ll take some time off, regroup, see where he’s at mentally and talk out, communicate, and see what happens with him.”
Ben Vander Plas, a junior, shined in Ohio’s win over Virginia, and finished the season averaging 12.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
Sophomore guards Ben Roderick (12.2 points per game) and Lunden McDay (10.0 points per game) both flourished throughout the season. Freshman guard Mark Sears averaged 8.5 points per game and started five games during the season when Preston was out of the lineup.
Boals is coming off his second season leading the way, and has a record of 34-23 in Athens. The Bobcats were 14-17 the season before his arrival, and are now on top of the MAC.
Big things could be in store for Ohio next season, but an interesting offseason certainly awaits.
“To taste the success and win the MAC Tournament and come in the NCAA Tournament where no one’s played in either one, to do what they did, this will be the memory of a lifetime,” Boals said. “They’ll know that they can do it again, but it’s a lot of hard work. Winning is hard, and it’s not just showing up to practice, it’s a lot of different things. A special group.”