Mid-American Conference play has hit its halfway point — well, at least for the Bobcats, it has.
Nine games in, not much has been figured out in the realm of Ohio basketball. The Bobcats’ offense has been largely inconsistent throughout the season, but it has shown how bad it can be in conference play. Freshmen are beginning to make a true impact, but how much can they help down the stretch?
The elephant in the room has been Saul Phillips’ contract, which expires in May. With only nine games remaining in the regular season and no answers to be found on the contract front, Phillips continues the season as an unknown.
Things may seem bleak in The Convo, but the reality is that the Bobcats maintain an overall winning record and can still turn their season around — under the correct circumstances.
If Ohio can string together wins throughout April, it’ll have some momentum to carry into the MAC Tournament.
The week-long break could not have come at a better time for the Bobcats, and they’re using this week to work on a plethora of things to make February more memorable than January was.
The Bobcats got the day off from any practices Sunday and Monday, but that was it. Ohio has too much to work on to take extensive time off, according to Phillips.
“It gives us a chance to refocus a little bit, really hammer out the offensive issues we’ve been having, get some more shooting in,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, (the time off) is needed.”
The Bobcats have shown flashes of being a dominant offensive team — they in nonconference play. They have also had 40-minute duds at points, including three games in conference which they scored fewer than 55 points.
Phillips is the first to admit that Ohio isn’t a gifted shooting team. The Bobcats are shooting 29.7 percent from 3-point range. But Phillips is OK with that, saying as long as the Bobcats can shoot below average from 3, they can win games with defense.
That is true, as long as the other components of the offense are clicking.
Phillips’ offense thrives on ball movement and cuts, but when Ohio gets stagnant offensively, it can go minutes without scoring the basketball. The lulls have to change, and Ohio knows that.
“We can address some of the things, under a microscope, that we’re deficient in,” Phillips said of the time off.
Confidence goes hand-in-hand with offense, and the Bobcats lacked confidence as they entered the bye week.
Where the Bobcats have lacked in shooting, they’ve made up for it on the defensive end. Defense isn’t an issue — Ohio has been a top-5 team in the MAC on that end all season. Confidence is there with the defense.
Offensively, Ohio has to maximize its possessions. The Bobcats have often been too reliant on making the extra pass that offers a free shot but denies an easy shot in the process. They’ve also been reluctant to move without the ball. Simply put: At times, the offense isn’t good.
“It’s a little frustrating,” Gavin Block said of the offense Jan. 21. “We just have to keep grinding and finding ways.”
One Bobcat that has grown confident on the floor is Jason Preston. The freshman guard from Florida was hesitant to shoot in nonconference play, but once he garnered the confidence needed to play at a high level, he’s taken control of the offense.
If Teyvion Kirk continues to struggle, Preston will be a focal point of the offense, particularly in getting it started.
The problem? Phillips is wary of a freshman “wall” Preston may run into as conference play enters its final month. It’s customary for younger players to show a decline in production late in the season.
That’s why Phillips keeps an eye on his underclassmen.
“It’s like the All-Star Break,” Phillips said. “We’re at the midway point, so you’re always looking at your freshman trying to figure out how much they have left in the tank. Hopefully, a week like this allows him to maybe get that tank a little fuller so that we can gun it down the stretch with him. I’m very interested in playing him bigger minutes down the stretch.”
Point guard production
As Kirk weaves through his second act of conference play, he’ll play a pivotal role in the Bobcats’ success. His confidence might not have been lower than in , when the Bobcats scored only 52 points and lost by 14. In that game, Kirk had 11 points on 4-of-22 shooting, the worst shooting night for any Bobcat this season. After that loss, Phillips didn’t mince words.
“He has got to progress,” Phillips said. “He’s got to get better.”
Even with the struggles he’s had, Kirk has shown flashes of his potential. In the win over Western Michigan a week later, he had 11 points on nearly 50 percent shooting. That is the production Phillips wants from his point guard.
He might be getting that — Phillips even went as far as saying Kirk’s practice Tuesday was his best in a long time.
For now, Kirk and Preston continue to not only share the ball handling duties, but they also command the offense. And they’ll need to be great for the Bobcats to find themselves in the thick of the MAC come March.