Jeff Boals has been tasked all season long with a predicament that not many coaches want to go through in their first year with a new program.
Ohio is in a rebuilding phase. That means Boals has to manage a roster full of young talent every night.
He also wants to win, and that means giving ample minutes to the most experienced players on Ohio’s roster.
Boals faced that challenge Tuesday in Ohio’s 83-74 loss to Toledo at The Convo, where the Bobcats were never out of the game from a scoring perspective, but ultimately turned to their bench of freshmen to finish a sluggish game.
“Our bench the last couple games didn’t really give us anything,” Boals said. “I thought our bench was really good today. Everybody wants to play. When you come in to impact a game, you got to have great energy, and I thought those guys did that tonight.”
Ohio’s bench recorded 26 points, five rebounds and two steals against Toledo. For Boals, that quality stat line is the biggest silver lining he can take from a game where the Bobcats opened with a 1-for-11 shooting drought and struggled to contain Toledo’s Marreon Jackson, who dropped 29 points and leads the Mid-American Conference in points.
Mason McMurray, Miles Brown, Nolan Foster and Ben Roderick — the four Bobcats to receive time off the bench — all figure to play heavier roles in Ohio’s future. None of them are in their sophomore seasons, but Boals has no choice but to give them minutes.
Jason Preston, Ben Vander Plas and Jordan Dartis — the top three Ohio starters — have all played close to 40 minutes per game. They piloted the Bobcats to reasonable success in nonconference play, but the trio doesn’t appear to be enough to match against opponents that rank in the middle of the pack of the MAC.
So, how does Boals balance winning with ensuring that Ohio’s young core can blossom into his vision?
“I think it’s about the feel (of the game),” Boals said. “Sometimes, matchup wise, it might be difficult to play certain guys and play your bench. The tempo of the game might dictate how much you play your bench.”
The tempo Tuesday was, well, exceptionally slow. Ohio shot a less-than-stellar 39% from the field, and the Bobcats offensive struggles forced Preston to shoot 21 times, tying a career-high.
Roderick, Boals’ top freshman recruit, was arguably Ohio’s smoothest shooter against the Rockets. He scored 11 points, went 4-for-8 from the field and drained three 3-pointers.
The 6-foot-5 forward, whom Boals has frequently touted the “third-best” player on Ohio, has been limited for most of the season due to injuries. Roderick is healthy now but still has an uphill battle toward acclimating to the college level.
Boals, of course, is aware. That’s why Roderick’s minutes have steadily increased since the start of conference play.
“It’s just getting confidence with me,” Roderick said. “Every day in practice, I just keep working hard and watching film. My defense has to get better. I just need to keep progressing.”
The rest of Ohio’s young roster needs that, too, so Boals slowly began to sift through his substitutions as the clock waned down to its final minutes against Toledo. Even when the Bobcats brought the deficit to nine points with two minutes left, it only felt right.
For Ohio, those endings probably won’t change soon.