Jordan Dartis and the Bobcats said for weeks that they weren't keeping track of the conference standings.
They weren't worried about where they finished or who they played. All they cared about was playing their best basketball come March.
But the Miami rivalry is about the fans and alumni. Dartis said he treats every game like a rivalry game. But he knows Monday’s first-round Mid-American Conference Tournament game against Miami means more to fans than it would against Bowling Green or Western Michigan.
“It could definitely get heated,” Dartis said. “Definitely some fans would want to see that, for sure.”
Good news for Dartis and the Ohio fanbase: The Bobcats have won seven straight games against Miami. The players that joined the program after 2014-15 — everyone but Sam Frayer and Mike Laster — have never lost to the RedHawks.
The Bobcats may be projected by kenpom.com to lose by three points, but recent history suggests otherwise.
“Like I said in the press conference when we first played them, we own the rivalry,” Dartis said. “And I’ll leave it at that.”
Isn’t it difficult to beat a team three times in one season, though? Coach Saul Phillips says no. But his team proved the opposite two years ago.
Ohio beat Buffalo twice in 2016 — once by 19 on the road, once in overtime at home. But come MAC Tournament time, Buffalo made the adjustments necessary to knock the Bobcats out in the semifinals.
The glaring weakness for the Bobcats — in both Miami wins — has been turnovers. They outshot Miami in both games, but two doses of 16 turnovers sent the game to overtime in Athens and kept it close in Oxford.
Phillips knows Miami will increase the on-ball pressure. And he knows his team can’t get away with the same careless mistakes.
“We can certainly improve on taking care of the ball,” Phillips said. “We need to relieve pressure better.”
But Phillips also knows his team has excelled at scoring at the rim when breaking pressure against the RedHawks. He knows that, in spite of Teyvion Kirk’s 11 combined turnovers against Miami, he’s played impressive defense on Miami guard Darrian Ringo.
The Bobcats forced Ringo into a season-high seven turnovers in The Convo. Then they held him to a season-low two assists at Millett Hall, just after he was presented a game ball in warmups for breaking the all-time Miami assist record.
Now they have to suppress him again. They have to win a rivalry game on the road again.
Snapping their “Battle of the Bricks” win streak on Friday would’ve meant a momentum halt heading into the conference tournament and a slew of disappointed alumni who made the trip and talked to the players in the locker room before the game. Snapping it Monday will end their season and the careers of Mike Laster, Sam Frayer and Antonio Bisutti.
The Bobcats need to win on Tuesday. Of course they do. They need to send Laster, Frayer and Bisutti off with a MAC title. It didn’t matter who they drew — all of that would still be the case.
But they got Miami. And Miami games mean more. Even in the offseason.
“It’s more fun on the golf course when you sweep Miami,” Phillips said.