Home for two

Redshirt freshman forward Nate Springs, seen here earlier this season, and the Bobcats (10-8, 2-3 MAC) take on Toledo at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night inside the Convocation Center.

Ben Vander Plas has avoided the proverbial sophomore slump.

Vander Plas, Ohio’s third-year 6-foot-8 forward, was named the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year in 2019 after averaging 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in his first real season of college basketball.

Now, as Ohio (10-8, 2-3 MAC) tries to build some momentum in the league title chase, it’s Vander Plas acting as a driving force instead of a complementary piece. He’s now a starter and core aspect of what the Bobcats are trying to do at both ends of the floor under first-year head coach Jeff Boals.

“Everything,” Vander Plas said when asked early this season about what he wanted to add to his game.

“I want to handle the ball better, shoot it better, get stronger,” he continued. “Be more of a wing guy and have more parts to my game instead of just shooting 3s.”

To that end, Vander Plas has already delivered. For the season, he’s pumped his averages up to 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. As for shooting, Vander Plas has improved from 40.7 percent overall all the way up to 52.8 percent. From 3-point range, it’s jumped from 30.9 percent to 35.0 percent.

“He’s investing more,” said Boals, who said he and the coaching staff have asked for more individual work from the Bobcats’ best front-court scorer.

“I’d say in the last two weeks he’s watched more film individually than he has probably in his entire lifetime,” the coach added. “It’s really paid dividends.”

In MAC play, Vander Plas has emerged as one of the best players in the conference. In five MAC games, Vander Plas is averaging 20.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.

And in the last 10 days, Vander Plas has been even better than that. He’s scored at least 22 points in each of the last three games. He’s averaging 25.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game over the stretch, and shooting 59.2 percent overall and 52.4 percent from 3 in the small sample size.

Vander Plas hit double figures in seven straight games, and posted five 20-point games in Ohio’s last nine contests. The extra work is taking hold, and showing up on game days.

“He’s taken it to another level and made it part of his routine,” Boals said. “All the great ones, they try to find every advantage that they can.

“In film, it’s probably the best way to do it.”

Rockets on tap

Ohio continues MAC play on Tuesday, with a 7 p.m. tipoff against Toledo (10-8, 2-3 MAC) inside the Convo.

The Rockets were the preseason favorite to win the West Division, but had lost six of its last seven games prior to exploding in a 99-89 win at Akron on Saturday. Toledo buried 15 of 26 3-pointers to give the Zips their first home loss of the season.

Toledo is second in the MAC in overall offensive efficiency (106.3 points per 100 possessions), features an experienced and talented starting five, and loves the long ball. The Rockets rank 17th nationally by hitting 38.2 percent from 3-point range against Division I competition this season.

The Rockets can score in bunches, and do it quickly.

“Guarding the 3-point line is going to be big,” Boals said. “They can put it on you in a hurry.

“Very talented. They pose a lot of difficulties for us.”

Four of Toledo’s five starters score in double figures and the Rockets show up often near the top of the MAC leaderboard. Junior PG Marreon Jackson ranks second in the league in points (18.2/game), assists (6.1) and steals (2.1). Senior center Luke Knapke averages 15.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per games, hits at 40.3 percent clip from 3-point range and leads the MAC in blocks (2.5 per game). Senior forward Willie Jackson, a former Missouri transfer, averages 12.1 points and a MAC-best 12.5 rebounds per game.

Marreon Jackson (36 points) and Willie Jackson (25) both posted career highs in Saturday’s win at Akron.

“You can’t relax with those guys,” Boals said.

The two programs are linked by their coaching staffs. First-year Ohio assistants Lamar Thornton and Kyle Barlow both worked at Toledo previously for current Rockets head coach Tod Kowalczyk.

And current Toledo first-year assistant Walter Offutt shined as a standout on the floor for the Bobcats and was an integral part of OU’s 2012 NCAA Tournament team. When Boals hired Barlow to fill out his staff this season in Athens, Kowalczyk brought in Offutt from Chattanooga.

Bobcat bits — Ohio sophomore PG Jason Preston leads the MAC in assists per game (7.4) and minutes per game (37.6). He also leads all MAC starting PGs in turnovers per game (4.1). …Neither Toledo nor Ohio goes deep on the bench. The Rockets have four starters ranked in the top seven in the MAC in minutes played per game (Jackson and Jackson, Knapke and Spencer Littleson), while Ohio has three players (Preston, Vander Plas and senior guard Jordan Dartis) ranked in the top 11. …Ohio junior wing Connor Murrell is out of action for the time being, Boals said Monday, as complications resulting from his season-long abdomen injury have resurfaced. Redshirt freshman forward Mason McMurray (head) will be available moving forward however. …The game will be the first home game since Ohio started the winter semester, and the first with a full campus available to attend since early December.

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

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