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Mike Lopresti | | January 20, 2022

Led by upset-producing usurpers on the court and sideline, Ohio makes it way through the MAC with March in mind

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OXFORD, Ohio – See the visiting team out there in white uniforms, blowing past Miami of Ohio by 23 points? Yep, it's full of troublemakers.

The Ohio Bobcats have a reputation. They can be real pains for bigger fish. They showed that back at a preseason NIT in the mid-1990s, when they went to Ohio State and beat the Buckeyes, then went to Virginia and knocked off the Cavaliers, then went to Madison Square Garden and finished the job. The team captain was a forward named Jeff Boals.

Now he’s the coach.

They were up to more mischief in 2010, when they clawed through the Mid-American Conference as the ninth seed, then showed up in the NCAA tournament and took apart Georgetown by 14 points, putting 97 points on the Hoyas’ defense. And again in 2012, when they rolled to the Sweet 16 with wins over Michigan and South Florida, and took North Carolina to overtime. And again last March, when they won the MAC tournament as the fifth seed, then promptly knocked out defending national champion Virginia.

That makes three first-round victories in the past 11 NCAA tournaments for Ohio, and in none were the Bobcats seeded higher than 13th. That also means a lot of memories hanging from the rafters back in Athens. ”I look at the banners every single day when I walk in,” Boals said last March. “From my (introductory) press conference two years ago to every single practice.”

Ohio has found a place in NCAA tournament lore in other ways, too. The Bobcats were the victims of Austin Carr’s 61 points in 1970, a single-game scoring record that still stands.

So here they were on a Tuesday night in Oxford, Ohio, and they had just cruised past Miami 86-63 to go 14-2. You wonder if the gust of wind from what Ohio did last March is still blowing this team forward, and what the heroics of former Bobcat teams mean to them.

Senior Ben Vander Plas, for instance, said, “It’s fun looking back on the runs that they made and then being able to be a part of a run. It puts you in that conversation with some of those guys and that’s a really cool feeling, because on the OU campus those guys are legend.

“(Last March) was a big confidence boost for a lot of us. I think that definitely carried over into this year. We kind of saw what it takes to get where we were last year.”

Boals on Ohio’s history: “It means everything. I’ve been able to do what our guys have done. To see them do it last year, that’s why I came back. To see the confetti fall, the nets cut down, seeing your name pop up on the screen. When you do it once you want to keep doing it.

“But like I told our guys, last year was a completely different team.”

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For one, Jason Preston isn’t around anymore. He was the guard with the Hollywood-worthy story who led the fight against Virginia with 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. Preston averaged two points a game in high school, and was so ignored by college recruiters, he had to tweet out highlights of his games to get anyone to notice. Now he’s a Los Angeles Clipper. “We lost an NBA point guard early, which doesn’t happen at our level,” Boals said.

But Vander Plas is back. The 6-8 redshirt senior had 17 points against Virginia, which came with an unusual side story. Three decades earlier, his father Dean had contributed the exact same total of 17 points as Green Bay nearly upset Michigan State in the first round. One of Dean’s teammates that day was Tony Bennett, the Virginia coach that Ben helped shoot out of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Mark Sears, a reserve guard last year, has developed into a mighty force as a sophomore, averaging 19.5 points while shooting 48 percent overall, 43 percent from behind the 3-point arc, and 91.6 percent from the free throw line. “There’s not too many people in America doing that,” Boals said.

Plus, a major boost came when Jason Carter reappeared like a boomerang. The 6-8 forward spent three years in the Ohio program, went to Xavier for two seasons, then came back as graduate transfer. Now he’s the leading rebounder and second-leading scorer.

“The thought of it might be a little weird, but Jason was my roommate my first year,” Vander Plas said. “For me it was really easy welcoming him back. There was a little bit of an adjustment period but he fits right in with us.”

Given the free-swinging doors in the transfer portal now, Carter’s 360-degree journey is right out of 2022.

“Coming back, we kind of had to reprogram him from a confidence standpoint,” Boals said. “He’s a big addition. Our defense is really good because of him, because he can guard one through five. He can switch ball screens, he can rebound the basketball. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

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So Ohio may be someone’s problem again in a couple of months. Getting through the MAC won’t be easy. Toledo seems a particular threat and they play in Athens Friday. “Being in the MAC for what feels like about 20 years now,” Vander Plas said, “it’s like anybody can beat anybody on any given night. You can’t just expect to roll the balls out and get a win. With us winning last year, everybody is going to give us their toughest shot.”

Same for Boals. “Come in with the right mindset, don’t look ahead, don’t look back. Just worry about what we’re doing today. I think that’s really why we’ve been able to do what we’ve been able to do it. It’s a pretty mature, veteran group, they’ve been through a lot of battles together.

“If you don’t bring your A-game you can get beat. These one-bid leagues, you’ve got to get hot at the right time. Last year we were.”

And they’re smart. Boals mentioned the 3.25 team grade-point average. He’s the guy to appreciate that. His Ohio degree is in biological sciences.

“I’ve had five knee surgeries, three torn ACLs. I always liked the physical therapy side of it,” he said. “If I would have known I was going to coach, I would not have been a biology major because I was taking cell chem, organic chem . . . a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of late nights.”

But he was playing basketball in March. They often are at Ohio.

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