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Jeff Boals, Ohio Bobcats, had their own COVID-19 issues heading into March Madness

jeff boals ohio
Ohio coach Jeff Boals. Photo by Chris Graham/Zoom.

The last several days for the Ohio Bobcats have been like life in the movie “Groundhog Day,” to hear coach Jeff Boals tell it.

“Every day, repeat. You’ll get up. Meeting, practice, COVID tests,” said Boals, whose team arrived in Indianapolis on Sunday, six days ahead of its scheduled game with the West Region’s four seed, Virginia, which is set for tomorrow night.

Boals joined “The Jerry Ratcliffe Show” with Chris Graham on Friday to talk about his team’s preparations for the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Ohio earned its way into the tourney field with a run through the Mid-American Conference Tournament last week in Cleveland.

The five seed going in, the Bobcats had to beat four seed Kent State, top seed Toledo and two seed Buffalo to punch its ticket to the Big Dance.

All of this after a pair of COVID-19 pauses that almost derailed the 2020-2021 season for Ohio.

“We had been on a 21-day pause. We played three games in five days, and had one practice before those three games in five days. And we didn’t have Jason Preston, Dwight Wilson, our two leading scorers at the time. And we ended up winning the game. And then that following weekend, we had another positive test, and our last two regular-season games got canceled. So when we played our MAC Tournament game last Thursday, that was our fourth game in 36 days,” Boals said.

“I didn’t know what to expect. And you know, our guys came out, they were energized, they were fresh. Our starting two guard was in a 10-day quarantine, literally got out of quarantine, Wednesday came over and shot for 10, 15 minutes, got on the bus with us and had 18 points the next day.

“So, I want to tell people, you’re talking to the wrong coach with Virginia having a drop off, because I’ve seen it, we’ve lived it, and there was no drop off,” Boals said.

That’s been the narrative from the Virginia side coming in. The ‘Hoos won their ACC Tournament opener over Syracuse last week, then had to bow out because of a single COVID-19 positive that sent the entire program into quarantine for a week.

The team is in Indy now, going through the protocols that Ohio and the rest of the field began on Sunday.

You’re not going to see Boals or anybody from the Ohio side feel sorry for the Virginia contingent, given what they’ve had to go through to get to March Madness.

The story actually starts two Marches ago when Ohio plucked Boals, a four-year letterwinner who was the captain of the Bobcats’ 1994 NCAA Tournament team, from Stony Brook, which he had just led to a 24-9 mark in his third season as a first-time head coach.

Ohio was looking to get a restart after cutting ties with Saul Phillips, who had gone 81-87 in five seasons.

It wasn’t easy going at the outset for Boals.

“When I got the job, we lost a few guys to transfer, and we had to bring in seven new players in that class. And, you know April recruiting, seven scholarships is not always ideal. But we got some really good ones, and then followed that up with another big class the year after that,” Boals said.

He inherited the key piece of the rebuild, 6’4” junior Jason Preston, a former six-foot-nothing guard who scored 52 points as a high school senior, before getting notice on the AAU circuit, going to prep school, and getting two D1 offers – from Longwood and Ohio.

“His life is a movie. What he’s been through the last five, six years, I mean, it’s the American Dream, the power of believing in yourself, the power of opportunity,” Boals said. “Five years ago, he was six feet tall, 140 pounds, scored 52 points his whole senior year. Now he’s six foot four, almost 190 pounds, playing in the NCAA Tournament, and just a phenomenal person, and what he’s persevered through, he deserves everything that he’s earning, and just a fun kid to be around, a great student of the game, someone who makes his teammates better, and he’ll be the first to deflect every amount of attention on him and put it on his teammates. You know, we have five guys that average double figures and six averages nine points. And he really sets the tone for the unselfishness.”

UVA coach Tony Bennett compares Preston to former Cavaliers star Ty Jerome. You’ll also hear references to LaMelo Ball.

“I was at Ohio State for seven years, and was fortunate enough to coach Evan Turner and D’Angelo Russell. And both of those two had elite vision. And Jason’s the same way,” Boals said. “He sees things develop before they happen. He can see how the defense’s guarding certain actions, what pass will be there. And, you know, some of his turnovers, quite honestly, are the right passes that his teammates might not have seen. He’s got that vision, and creates double teams off ball screens and drives to be able to get open shots for everybody.”

Everything runs through Preston, who started getting national attention after putting up 31 points and eight assists in a 77-75 loss to Illinois in November.

Preston (16.6 ppg, 7.2 assists/g, 6.8 rebounds/g, 53.0% FG, 40.8% 3FG) is adept at getting into the paint, drawing open looks on the perimeter for 6’8” junior Ben Vander Plas (12.8 ppg, 5.7 rebounds/g, 3.8 assists/g, 43.9% FG, 35.6% 3FG) and 6’5” sophomore Ben Roderick (12.4 ppg, 48.7% FG, 40.7% 3FG) and in the lane for 6’8” senior Dwight Wilson (14.9 ppg, 7.5 rebounds/g, 66.5% FG).

Wilson might be your other key guy. The James Madison transfer was a late addition to the roster for 2020-2021.

“He was going to sit out this year, and we did an appeal. We didn’t find out until the Sunday before we left for Illinois. We’re leaving on Monday. We found out the day before that he was going to be eligible. He’s a big reason why we’ve been successful this year,” Boals said.

The game plan will be to try to attack with Preston from the perimeter and Wilson from the post. Boals isn’t buying the notion that it will somehow be easier against this Virginia team because this year’s group isn’t as stout on the defensive end as previous incarnations.

“Everyone’s like, well, their defense isn’t their defense this year. I’m like, well, it’s really good,” Boals said, shifting the talk to the Virginia offense, which ranks 12th nationally in efficiency, per KenPom.com.

“If you look at their offensive numbers, they’re more efficient offensively this year than their defense, and that’s saying something. I think (Kihei) Clark is a great player. You look at him physically, and that’s a mistake. You look at his shooting percentage, that’s a mistake. Because he hits big-time shots, and really is the head of the snake. He just makes everyone better, gets in the lane when he wants to, and gets open shots for (Trey) Murphy on the wing, (Sam) Hauser, and so I think, like you said, there’s multiple guys who can score different ways.

“Really, they make you they wait until you make a mistake defensively to capitalize on it. OK, you’re going to chase over the flare screen, that’s fine. We’ll rescreen you. You’re going to go under the first screen. OK, well, we’ll bump it and get a shot off. So, they pose a lot of problems for us. And we’ve just got to make sure that we try to keep the ball in front as much as we can.”

Story by Chris Graham


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