On Oct. 31, 2019, the Mid-American Conference released its coaches’ preseason poll ahead of the basketball season.
Ohio received 12 votes. All of them picked the Bobcats to finish last.
The criticism was fair. After all, it had a new coach with new systems and a new culture. It had players that could’ve made an impact, transfer out of the program. It had eight incoming freshmen who all had never played a minute of Division I basketball in their life.
And yet, with just three games left, the Bobcats inch closer and closer to potentially hosting a first-round game in the MAC Tournament, which starts on March 9.
They haven’t hosted a tournament game since the 2016-2017 season when rival Miami lost in The Convo by 14 points.
The aforementioned facets of adversity should’ve caused Ohio to be a worse spot than it is right now.
A new coach with implementing new staff, systems and culture can be tough on the most impressionable or seasoned team. The losses of James Gollon, Jason Carter, Teyvion Kirk and Antonio Cowart Jr. hurt. They were experienced players who had the skills to give the Bobcats more than just 12 votes.
The now-seven freshmen, after the departure of Marvin Price, have had their youthful moments. But with nearly 30 games under their belts, the experience and, more importantly, the confidence shows.
Ohio opened up its first half of the Mid-American Conference slate with a 2-7 record but has since then found its stride. The Bobcats have won four out of their last six games — including an 80-69 final over Buffalo, who currently has a first-round bye heading into the MAC Tournament – and it’s because of both tangibles and intangibles.
Tangibly speaking, coach Jeff Boals has used a multitude of in-game substitutions that have put his team in positions to succeed. Perhaps the most notable of these substitutions came against Miami on Feb. 8 when he pulled Sylvester Ogbonda in place for Ben Roderick.
From there, the Bobcats rolled with their small-ball lineup, and it gave them great success against Miami and Western Michigan the following week.
Truly, it’s been the intangibles. As they find ways to win moments in the game, those moments turn into the game itself, and the confidence grows.
“We’re learning every game,” Jason Preston said. “We’re a young team and we’re just getting better each practice. Staying together and following what coach Boals says.”
Preston, the sophomore point guard who runs Ohio’s offense like he ties his shoes, has had that preseason prediction in the back of his mind. It’s given him part of the chip that’s on his shoulders every time he goes out on the court.
“The goal is to just keep going up that ladder,” he said.
There are only three more rungs on that ladder with Kent State, Akron and Miami. For the Bobcats to climb that ladder, they need to continue to play with that confidence they’ve shown over the course of the last three weeks.
“We probably should’ve been picked last,” Boals said. “But if you go back, from day one we’ve had two goals and that’s (to) get better every day and get closer as a team every day.”
Those two goals translate to the tangibles and intangibles. Ohio’s never got too low in its worst stretch of the season, a four-game losing streak where it lost by an average of 5.5 points. In the midst of that stretch, there was optimism that this young team could hang around a veteran squad like Akron.
At the end of the stretch, a road trip to Dairy Queen after a loss to Ball State froze up the woes. In their next game, the Bobcats blew out Miami.
Ohio was a team that was looked down upon at the start of the season. With all of the turnover and changes it had faced and was set to experience, it would’ve been an easy vote to put the Bobcats in last place.
But week by week, they’ve quietly begun to turn those expectations into falsehoods and have played the way that perhaps they didn’t even know they could.
There’s still plenty of time for things to go sour, or stay the same, but nevertheless, with where it is now, there isn’t reason for the Bobcats to believe they were going to be last.