Ohio forwards Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely are among some of the tallest students at Ohio University. But when it comes to the hardwood in the Mid-American Conference, they have plenty of company.
Eleven of the 12 MAC men’s basketball programs have at least three players who are 6-foot-7 or taller on the roster. And the MAC East has some of the biggest and best.
From defending MAC Player of the Year Justin Greene of Kent State to Freshman of the Year Javon McCrea of Buffalo, the division is loaded with tall talent. And that’s without mentioning Akron’s 7-footer Zeke Marshall or Miami’s Julian Mavunga.
Ohio has six players who are 6-foot-7 or larger, tying for the third-largest group of big men in the MAC. Only Western Michigan, led by conference heavyweight Matt Stainbrook, and Miami have more players of that height than the Bobcats.
But the Bobcats do not rely on one star forward to pick up points in the paint. Ohio is the only team in the conference with no forwards in the top 20 in scoring or rebounding.
Whether the task is scoring or defending another big man, Baltic said the key is teamwork.
“When there’s a great player on another team, it’s a team effort,” he said. “It’s not just me guarding him or Reggie guarding him. We all get it done together.”
Along with Baltic and Keely, 6-foot-7 forward Jon Smith has seen plenty of minutes at forward. Sophomore center Ethan Jacobs (6-foot-10, 220 pounds) and Kenny Belton (6-foot-8, 280 pounds) have played minimally as Ohio has opted for a leaner look that features speed over pure size.
“We’ve used it as an advantage. We’re No. 1 in the country at forcing turnovers, and a lot of that is because of our athleticism, our speed, our length,” coach John Groce said. “So we’re not going to apologize for that. We’re the No. 1 rated defense in the MAC right now, and if being small is what it takes, we’ll take it.”
Four MAC players have registered double-doubles against the Bobcats, but Ohio lost only one of those games.
Keely said the key to defending a tall player is to keep him as far away from the block as possible. If a big forward or center gets near the basket, there’s not much the defense can do.
“If we can’t stop those guys, we can’t win,” Keely said. “If they get off big games, 20 (points) and 15 (rebounds), they look pretty much unstoppable and their team feeds off that. That’s not good for our chances of winning that game.”
Now in the fourth month of a long season, Ohio must prepare for a tough stretch to close out the regular season. After visiting Toledo Wednesday, the Bobcats will face Eastern Michigan and 7-footer Da’shonte Riley on Saturday. Then comes the second round of MAC East contests, including rematches against McCrea, Marshall, Greene and Mavunga.
Keely said the team focuses on mental preparation in practice to conserve energy for when it matters most.
“We don’t do too much contact. Coach gets the pad out to simulate some contact, but we don’t do flesh-on-flesh,” Keely said. “I think that’s a big part of our game plan and what we do, just to keep us fresh so we can hit with those bigger guys.”
The Bobcats have shown depth at forward as well. That depth was apparent against Akron, when Smith, Keely and Baltic fouled out. Freshman TyQuane Goard played 13 minutes to help at the defensive end, and Marshall finished the game with 17 points but only five rebounds.
“I think it’s important that we can throw a lot of bodies at that them just in case some guys get in foul trouble and have to miss a part of the game,” Keely said. “We’re so deep in that area.”