Ohio was on the path to success. It had a four-game win streak following its emotional 89-79 loss to Kent State on Jan. 16. The rebound battle was turning in its favor every game. The Bobcats were healthy, and their roster was at nearly full strength following Jason Preston’s return to the court after a lower leg injury.
It was all too good to last. The Bobcats’ hot streak was bound to come to an end, but no one expected it to blow up in their faces.
On Feb. 6, the Mid-American Conference announced that Ohio was halting all basketball operations due to COVID-19 contact tracing issues. This in turn postponed Ohio’s games against Bowling Green, Akron, Central Michigan and Western Michigan until further notice.
The four new postponements bring Ohio’s total up to seven games that can be rescheduled, not including the Mississippi Valley game on Dec. 18 that was canceled outright. As of now, 32% of Ohio’s schedule has been postponed or canceled due to COVID-19 issues with either team.
No conditioning, no practice and no games. Nothing. The Bobcats were quarantined and couldn’t so much as leave their homes or dorm rooms. For almost two weeks, Ohio has been shut out of The Convo. Coach Jeff Boals’ Monday press conference was no exception. Instead of his office in The Convo, Boals answered questions from the media at his dining room table.
Boals has been worried about his players over the past two weeks. The Bobcats that are stuck in their dorms only have so much space allotted to themselves, and Boals wonders how that may affect them once play resumes.
“For the first time in seven months, this is the first incident we've had,” Boals said. “Our guys have been doing as good as they can. We gave them stuff to work out with and stretch with… But no one's been in the gym.”
The cause for concern isn’t strictly devoted to positive tests, but also the Bobcats’ performance on the court. Unlike previous postponements, the Bobcats haven’t practiced in almost two weeks, and that doesn’t spell well when the necessity to bounce back is looming over them.
The current makeup schedule won’t be a walk in the park. MAC play is unpredictable. Ohio plays Bowling Green and Akron, who are on three-win and two-win streaks respectively, and an Eastern Michigan team it has yet to face this season.
Boals is certain his team can continue the success it had before the break. There are only five games left until the MAC tournament begins, and Ohio is in crunch time. The MAC restructured its playoffs for the 2020-2021 season so that only the top eight teams in the conference have a chance, a shift Boals and many other MAC coaches have expressed distaste for.
In previous seasons, every team entered into the bracket and had a chance to win. Now, the teams have to scramble to avoid the bottom third of the standings. If Ohio wants to make it to Cleveland this season, there is no room for error once operations begin again.
“I think, moving forward when we do get guys back, there's going to be no excuses, like no one's gonna feel sorry for you,” Boals said. “We’ve got to try to get back to where we were as quick as we can from a safety and health standpoint.”
The coach sees a silver lining, however. Ohio has had its entire roster available for 11 games this season. In those games, it is 9-2. If none of the Bobcats test positive, the jump back into a normal schedule might be easier than expected.
What’s more, Ohio might stand a better chance on paper when given a second glance. Bowling Green’s two wins have only been decided by 20 points combined and follow the Falcons’ six-game skid through late January. Eastern Michigan isn’t a MAC powerhouse either. The Eagles are one step out of the basement in 11th place and are in the midst of a four-game losing streak where they’ve been outscored 338-269.
Akron is the most direct threat to Ohio out of the gate. Second in the MAC and on a three-game win streak, the Zips are burning through conference play. But there’s one glaring weakness, and it’s what Ohio has been zeroed-in on since mid-January — rebounding.
The Zips have been outrebounded by their last three opponents 107-104. It’s not a big weakness, but it is a weakness. Ohio won the rebound battle in the four games before its break and is arguably the reason that it beat Buffalo on its home turf. If Ohio can return to rebounding form before it faces Akron, it might be able to pull off another upset.
If Ohio gets back on its feet in time, the end of the regular season is wide open. But after being shorted two weeks of practice, Ohio needs to hustle.
“I think the big thing for us is to continue what we had been doing,” Boals said. “It'll be a day by day process and really not worrying about Buffalo, Kent or whoever else we play. We’re worrying about ourselves. Just going back to fundamentals and getting conditioning back will probably be the biggest thing.”