Ohio wasn’t supposed to be here.

It was supposed to be a team searching for ways to win games with seven freshmen, a first-year coach and plenty of injuries that probably should’ve been more impactful than they were.

All of the coaches within the Mid-American Conference shared that sentiment when they voted the Bobcats to finish in last place – a unanimous vote – when the preseason coaches’ poll was released.

Now, as the No. 8 seed in the MAC Tournament, Ohio has continued to surpass those preseason expectations that were laid out in front of it.

An 85-65 blowout win over Central Michigan in the first round of the tournament paved the way for the Bobcats to reach Cleveland for the first time since 2017. A come-from-behind win against rival Miami on March 6 gave Ohio the first-round game within The Convo – the first time that’s happened since 2014.

In a year filled with firsts, there’s another one for Ohio to achieve.

It’ll make the near 220-mile bus ride to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse where, for the third time this season, Ohio will play Akron.

The Bobcats lost both of the regular season games against the Zips, both in different manners. The first, an 88-86 final in The Convo on Jan. 25, saw the Bobcats down by 16 at halftime. They scored 54 in the second, but it wasn’t enough.

The second, a more recent 74-67 loss on March 3, happened after Ohio blew a 13-point lead and injuries sustained to multiple players throughout the lineup.

All of that is in the past, however, and Ohio is better prepared to face the MAC’s No. 1 team in a win-or-go-home atmosphere.

“It’s a new season,” coach Jeff Boals said about the postseason. “You kind of look at the three seasons – the preseason, the MAC and then postseason – the intensity level ramps up every move you make.”

Surely for a team where it exceeded expectations in the nonconference portion with wins over St. Bonaventure and Iona, a turnaround in conference play after a 2-7 start and then winning its first-round conference game by 20 points, the intensity spike has occurred.

In the Bobcats win over Central Michigan on Monday, they opened the game on a 19-4 run. Jason Preston hit a deep 3-pointer, and Ben Vander Plas scored six points in three minutes. The defense forced bad shots and gave pressure from all ends of the floor.

Those opening moments defined the game for the Bobcats, and with their self-imposed mantra of “one game at a time,” it’ll have to define what ever time they have left in the season.

“It’s win or go home,” Preston said.

Ohio has an opportunity to earn its most important win of the season Thursday when it plays the Zips for the third time.

A final look at Akron:

Game information

Opponent: No. 1 seed Akron Zips (24-7, 14-4 MAC)

Game time: 12 p.m.

Venue: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse (Cleveland)

Watch: ESPN+

Listen: Ohio IMG Sports Network

Meet the opponent

Starters

1 Loren Cristian Jackson (5-8, 150)

10 Deng Riak (6-10, 220)

20 Xeryius Williams (6-9, 215)

11 Channel Banks (6-4, 188)

5 Camron Reece (6-7, 228)

Individual Statistical Leaders

Points: Jackson (19.8 per game)

Rebounds: Williams (9.5 per game)

Assists: Jackson (4.5 per game)

Field goal percentage: Jackson (.465%)

3-point percentage: Jackson (.428%)

Free throw percentage: Williams (.908%)

Team Statistical Profile

Points: 75.7

Rebounds: 37.7

Assists: 13

Field goal percentage: .44

3-point percentage: .361

Free throw percentage: .771

The series

Akron leads the all-time series 44-40. The Bobcats are currently 1-2 in their last three games against the Zips with their last win on March 2, 2019, when they defeated Akron 73-49. This is Ohio’s first trip to Cleveland for the conference tournament for the first time since 2017, when it lost to Kent State in the semifinals.

@matthewlparker5

mp109115@ohio.edu