Ohio is three wins away from a Mid-American Conference Championship.
At the beginning of the season, that would’ve been hard to believe — the Bobcats haven’t been in that position since 2017. Not many people thought Ohio could make it to Cleveland with a team that featured many new faces and a new coach in Jeff Boals.
Now, the Bobcats are playing their best basketball of the season. They’ve made it to the biggest stage of the conference, but do they have enough talent to stay there?
The next chance to show it is Thursday at noon, when No. 8 seed Ohio will play its second game of the MAC Tournament against No. 1 seed Akron in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Here’s five questions that will be important for Ohio if it wants to extend its stay in Cleveland:
1. How tough is the path to the championship?
Ohio’s path to championship Saturday starts off as difficult as it could get, but then if it wins Thursday, the path becomes a little more easy.
The Bobcats’ first game in Cleveland is against No. 1 Akron, who have defeated them twice this season by an average of 4.5 points.
The Zips have what Ohio doesn’t. They have seasoned players. They have depth. They have a coach who has experience winning in the MAC.
With an 0-2 record against Akron, the Bobcats will have to find a way to put together a full 40-minute performance against one of their rivals. If it can do that, the path to a potential MAC Championship gets easier.
If they beat the Zips, the Bobcats would play the winner of No. 12 Miami vs. No. 4 Northern Illinois.
Ohio is 2-0 against the RedHawks this season, and its loss against the Huskies on Jan. 28 was by two points in the midst of their first half of conference play when it went 2-7.
In the second half of their conference season, the Bobcats went 6-3 and their young roster earned valuable minutes, but more importantly confidence.
Should the Bobcats beat Akron on Thursday, a title shot would become a fair expectation.
2. Can anyone stop Jason Preston?
So far, that answer has been no.
Preston, a sophomore guard, leads Ohio with 16.8 points per game and is fourth in the nation with 7.4 assists per game. He’s the best passer in the conference by a wide margin and has become the Bobcats’ most vital player.
Last week, Preston scored seven points in the final four minutes to carry Ohio to a win over Miami. He’s scored at least 18 points and has totaled seven or more assists in the Bobcats’ last four games.
If Preston stays hot in Cleveland, Ohio should never be out of a game. If an opponent finds a way to slow him down, however, then the Bobcats are in trouble.
3. Will Ohio’s youth show?
The question within the question, however, is when will it show? The only player on the roster who’s made it to Cleveland is Jordan Dartis.
Despite that Ohio’s youth hasn’t shown in most of its games to close out the season – noted by how Boals has mentioned several of his freshmen aren’t playing like freshmen – on a big stage with something to play for, it will happen.
Another question is how? The most noticeable evidence is whenever the Bobcats’ have been pressed on in-bounding plays.
They’ve struggled with getting the ball onto the other side of the court, which Central Michigan took advantage of in the first round game on Monday. Even though the Bobcats won by 20, it could’ve been by more had they found a way to overcome the press.
4. How can Boals effectively manage his bench?
This perhaps is one of the most underrated skills that Boals has had this season. With the slew of injuries his roster has experienced combined with the number of freshmen he has, Boals’ management in terms of both minutes and scenarios has been impressive.
Preston has played multiple 40-minute games this season and is seventh in the country with 38 minutes per game.
He’s clearly conditioned enough to play that many minutes, but there’s been rest between games.
There is no rest – or very little – if the Bobcats make it to the championship. They would play in three consecutive games, something they haven’t done since the Myrtle Beach Invitational.
Granted, the Bobcats played in consecutive games and against current No. 5 Baylor and major program Utah.
If Ohio will make it to Saturday, it’ll have to manage the minutes of its starting five wisely as well as which bench players to put in the game. Ben Roderick and Miles Brown both have been big off the bench for the Bobcats down the stretch. But names like Nolan Foster and even Nate Springs or Mason McMurray will need to be at their best if their number is called.
5. What will it be like playing in front of a (mostly) empty arena?
The MAC announced Tuesday that Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse will be closed to the general public for all conference games this week to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
So, what does that mean for Ohio? We’re not really sure yet, but the Bobcats gained a big advantage this year when they played in front of home supporters at The Convo.
Ohio was 12-5 at home this year and 4-9 on the road. Its neutral site record was 1-1.
Boals always mentioned in postgame interviews how much he loved the crowd, band and cheerleaders at The Convo. Every coach could obviously say that about a home environment, but the Bobcats were clearly better when they played in front of their fans.
Now, there will be no fans. Maybe it won’t mean anything, but it’ll certainly be weird.