Ohio University men's basketball coach Saul Phillips
Photo: Logan Riely

First Place on the Line in Akron

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Ohio and Akron. When it comes to basketball, these two teams are usually at or near the top of the Mid-American Conference standings.

This year is no different as the Ohio Bobcats (11-4, 3-1) travel to James A. Rhodes Arena to take on the Akron Zips (14-3, 4-0) Tuesday night.

It’s might seem early but first place is on the line because these two teams currently rank first (Akron) and second (Ohio) in the MAC East standings.

Ohio however could be without the services of MAC Player of the Year Antonio Campbell who injured his foot early in the game against Eastern Michigan on Saturday. Campbell did not practice on Monday, but head coach Saul Phillips said he will make the trip and could play.

“I’ll underscore there’s a chance he could play tomorrow night, there’s a chance he won’t,” Phillips said. “I’m not trying to be coy, I’m not trying to be deceptive that’s just where we’re at.”

If Campbell cannot play, Doug Taylor and Jason Carter will fill in, with Taylor likely getting the start.

“It’s just next man up, that’s how we go. Next man up,” Taylor said. “One of our brothers goes down, foul trouble or injuries, just whoever on the bench steps up.”

Senior big man Isaiah Johnson leads the Zips. Johnson, listed at 6 feet 10 inches and 290 pounds, although likely bigger, leads Akron in points per game (15.5), rebounds per game (7.2) and assists per game (3.2).

“Isaiah has turned into something you don’t see very often,” Phillips said. “He plays at his own tempo, very hard to draw charges on him and he just kinda wills himself to wherever he wants to get on the court, kinda at a glacial pace. It’s unique.”

“He’s really also become a good playmaker, his passing is as dangerous as his shooting.” Phillips continues.

Ohio, the MAC’s best defense (65.3 point per game) will face perhaps its toughest test of the season. The Zips average just under 79 points per game, but have the best 3-point percentage and the best field goal percentage. Ohio ranks first on defense in both categories.

Besides Johnson, Akron has a slew of 3-point shooters; five guys shoot above 40 percent. Kwan Cheatham Jr. is the leading sniper. At 6 feet 10 inches, he causes matchup nightmares for defenses because he can shoot, dribble and post up. The Bobcats need to slow down those two players to win.

For Ohio, the key is getting point guard Jaaron Simmons going. Simmons’ statistics are down from last year. He is averaging 11.3 points per game and is shooting 22.2 percent from beyond the arc.

“I think there’s no question we’re waiting for him to get on a roll and I can tell you the mood between me and him, we definitely feel it’s the next time we go out there,” Phillips said. “He hasn’t shot the ball as well. I still wouldn’t trade him for anybody in this league. A struggling Jaaron is still better than 90% of the point guards out there.”

The Bobcats are also trying to improve on their conference low 66 percent from the free throw line. Despite their struggles, Ohio is working on it.

“Shoot 200 in practice and have nobody shoot below 80.5 percent,” Phillips said on the struggles from the line “You work on it until it gets better.”

Ohio has lost three straight games to the Zips and is just 4-9 against Akron since 2011. Ohio looks to turn that around and break Akron’s 25 game home winning streak on Tuesday. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.