Building block

Ohio sophomore forward Ben Vander Plas (5) was one of two All-MAC selections for the Bobcats this season and is expected to pair with sophomore point guard Jason Preston next season to give OU a potent 1-2 bunch.

The Bobcats thought they had figured it out, and were determined to show the rest of the conference on the Mid-American Conference’s biggest stage.

Instead, the show was closed early.

Ohio weathered months of injury and inconsistency, only to have the season end a week too early. The Bobcats (17-15) posted a winning season, but never got a chance to shock anyone in the 2020 MAC Tournament after the sporting world essentially shut down a week ago as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the entire country.

It was a too-soon, and disappointing, ending to Jeff Boals’ first season as the head coach at his beloved alma mater. Neither he, nor his players, got a chance to delve into how they finished better than expected, or got the opportunity to take a bow in Cleveland after beginning the year picked to finish last in their half of the MAC.

The closest sophomore Jason Preston — the MAC’s biggest breakthrough star in 2019-20 — got to doing that came after Ohio won its MAC Tournament first round game (at home) against CMU. The Bobcats were going to be in the MAC’s final eight, a spot few thought possible just a month earlier.

Did it feel good to exceed expectations?

“Sure?” Preston said, questioning the surety of his own sentiment.

“We don’t really care too much about that. We’re just trying to win ballgames.”

And that was Ohio’s secret this season. Saddled with one of the youngest rosters in the league, no proven go-to players, and a first-year head coach, the Bobcats — to Boals’ credit — dove into embracing the every day.

Last year didn’t matter. Last week didn’t matter. Injuries don’t matter. External expectations don’t matter. Inexperience doesn’t matter.

Show up, play hard, practice hard and worry about what’s next.

“A lot of places I go, they love who they are off the court, they love how hard they play, they love how they play together,” Boals said. “You could kind of sense that the whole year.”

And Ohio needed that ‘next day’ mindset because there were plenty of pitfalls along the way. And most were expected. The Bobcats began the season with no returning starters from the year before, and the most experienced player — fifth-year senior Jordan Dartis — was trying to return after a full 12 months of dealing with hip and then foot injuries. OU had seven (redshirts included) freshmen on the roster.

The Bobcats were a bag of unknowns and potential, and they took several months to hammer that amalgamation into a team capable of winning games in the MAC.

There were injuries. Freshman wing Ben Roderick sprained a knee, and then broke a hand. Freshman guard Miles Brown missed all of the preseason and the first eight games with a knee injury of his own. Junior wing Connor Murrell (abdomen) was out the whole first semester, and then missed another two weeks after his return. Redshirt freshman Mason McMurray had a myriad issues that cost him a handful of games. Dartis missed a couple of games. Freshman guard Lunden McDay sat out a one-point loss at Bowling Green. Even stalwart sophomore forward Ben Vander Plas missed the regular-season finale with a sprained ankle.

Boals’ first recruiting class — five freshmen strong with a graduate transfer — took a hit early on when prized three-star wing Marvin Price didn’t return after the end of the fall semester.

There were losing streaks. OU was blown out in three straight games against top competition (Villanova, Baylor and Utah) in November. The season teetered on the brink after a four-game slide in the MAC left Ohio at 2-7 in conference play at the halfway point. Ohio was just 4-8 in road games, and all season never beat a team ranked higher than 122 in either the KenPom.com or NET rankings.

But the Bobcats found their footing late. Ohio rebounded to go 7-3 over its final 10 games as Preston and Vander Plas led the way, and others embraced needed roles. No team in the MAC was playing as well as Ohio down the stretch.

Yes, OU finished 8-10 in MAC play, but four of those losses were by three points or less. A break or two along the way and the Bobcats might have headed to Cleveland as an honest-to-goodness contender.

More importantly, Boals and company felt that way anyway. But the Bobcats never got the final chance to show how far they’d come.

“You never want your season to end, especially when you’re playing well,” Boals said, minutes after the MAC had canceled the conference tournament at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

“We talked at some point: You got like 200 guaranteed minutes left, or 400 guaranteed minutes left. We thought we had 40 more minutes left,” he continued.

“We kept on going down with this team. You don’t expect it end the way way it does. It’s just different.”

But with three starters expected back, and a year under the belt for six freshmen, it may also just be a beginning.

Best Win(s)

The Bobcats’ best win, on paper, came in its first game of the season — a 65-53 road win at St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies finished 19-12, ranked 123 in KenPom and 122 in the Net Ratings. The Bobcats got some breaks in that one — a key St. Bonaventure injury early — but Preston and Vander Plas showed right away the kinds of season they were capable of having.

The best win, from an emotional standpoint, came in the regular-season finale — a dramatic 67-65 road win at Miami. Ohio had had just one road win in the previous three months, trailed by 10 with less than three minutes remaining, and had to play without an injured Vander Plas.

But Preston scored seven points in less than a minute, and Brown scored the game winner with less than 30 seconds left with an offensive rebound putback to give the Bobcats an emotional high going into the postseason.

Worst loss(es)

On paper, it was a home setback to Campbell in the final game of 2019 on Dec. 29. The Bobcats were stagnant offensively, Dartis missed the game with illness, and Campbell (15-16) left Athens with a 63-55 win. Campbell finished ranked No. 262 in KenPom and No. 258 in NET.

In terms of emotional impact, Ohio had plenty choices to pick from in gut-punch conference losses. There was a three-point loss at Buffalo. There was the two-point home loss to Akron. Ohio had big halftime leads at home against Bowling Green and at Akron, but lost both games.

But the single toughest loss came on Feb. 22 at Bowling Green. Like before, the Bobcats raced out to a big halftime lead and saw it all disappear. BGSU won it with 2.2 seconds left — 62-61 — when Justin Turner hit a game-winning jumper from the top of the key.

OU shook it off and won the next two.

Player(s) of the Year

Dartis deserves an honorable mention here for finding a way to make himself available for 30+ minutes a game, 13 points per game, and for becoming program’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers (314, second in MAC history).

Vander Plas also deserves a nod. He earned Third Team All-MAC honors after averaging 15.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, and developed his interior game. He was OU’s best on-the-block scorer, with enough of a handle to make him one of the tougher ‘bigs’ to guard in the league.

But there’s no doubt that Preston — the 6-4 point guard — was Ohio’s Player of the Year. The sophomore broke through in a huge way, and quickly became one of the MAC’s best. He earned Second Team All-MAC honors, but deserved a first team nod.

Preston led Ohio with 16.8 points per game, and averaged 6.4 rebounds and 7.4 assist per contest. He ranked second nationally in assists per game, and fourth nationally with 238 for the season — the fourth-most in Ohio single-season history.

He was efficient — shooting 51.5 percent overall and 40.7 percent from 3 — and played an absurd amount of minutes. Preston averaged 38.1 minutes per game, and played a full 40 16 times — both were MAC highs.

Preston even collected just the second triple-double in program history.

This was Preston’s team, and Boals put great faith in a player he didn’t recruit to Ohio. The new head coach essentially handed the keys to a player he had no relationship with prior and it paid off in a huge way.

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

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