Ohio University forward, Gavin Block, dribbles the basketball during the Ohio vs Central Michigan Mens Basketball game at The Convocation Center on Saturday, February 3rd in Athens, Ohio. (Austin Janning/WOUB)

Ohio Men’s Basketball: Bobcats set to begin a tough December schedule against Marshall

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The old saying is “The only easy day was yesterday”, and those words couldn’t ring any truer for the Ohio men’s basketball team.

As December approaches and the temperature drops, the Bobcats (4-2) schedule will only continue to heat up. Saul Phillips’ Bobcats will certainly have their hands full, with four of their six games of the month coming against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year (Marshall, Xavier, Radford and Purdue). Even though the upcoming schedule is challenging, the Bobcats have picked up some momentum from their last two contests. After a rough two games in Jamaica, they’ve started to click since coming back to the States, with an overtime win against Austin Peay and a pummeling of the Iona Gaels at the Convo on Tuesday.

“Against Iona, we saw a formula for how we can play well as a group,” Phillips said. “It’s not ideal to start off the year shooting the three ball as we did, but when you can play through that and beat some pretty good teams in the process, it definitely builds confidence. For a young group like ours, having confidence is certainly key.”

Ohio will look to defend the Convo once again Saturday when they took on the Thundering Herd of Marshall (5-1), but that will be much easier said than done. Dan D’Antoni’s Thundering Herd have a two-headed monster in Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks, as the two senior guards are averaging close to 40 points a contest. The rest of the team certainly holds their own as well, as Marshall currently ranks 19th in the country points-per-game with a scorching 87.5 points a contest.

“Their screen and roll offense as well as their ability to get out in transition are two different animals,” Phillips said. “They are very good at slips off screens, rolls and have two guards in Elmore and Burks that always have the green light. Those two are going to score and get their shots points, but you have to make them do it inefficiently and take them out of their comfort zone.”

While the Thundering Herd rely heavily on upperclassmen, Elmore and Burks in particular, the Bobcats have used the contributions of several underclassmen and newcomers in their first six contests. The two most prominent examples in this campaign have been Jason Carter and Ben Vander Plas. Both forwards redshirted last year due to injuries, but have made substantial impacts for this team on both ends of the floor. Carter has continued to burst onto the scene after earning All-MAC freshmen two seasons ago, leading the Bobcats in points per game (18.7) while also hauling in seven rebounds a contest. Vander Plas may not be in the starting lineup like Carter, but he has certainly been a spark plug off the bench. In just 21 minutes a game, the Wisconsin native has averaged 11.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and leads the team in three-point percentage (.371).

“They’ve been huge for us. Jason I expected because I have seen him before, but Ben over the course of the last couple practices last year and over the summer has been consistently effective,” Phillips said.  “He can really do a lot of things well. There’s a difference between a true freshman and a kid who has been around like Ben. He’s a very smart kid and was able to learn effectively by hearing and seeing everything last year.”

For Vander Plas, despite his individual success, he was reassuring that his only focus is doing what he is asked and helping the team in anyway he can.

“Right now my responsibility is to come off the bench and provide a spark for the team offensively, defensively, with rebounding or anything I can do,” Vander Plas said.  “I don’t normally look at it individually though. This has definitely been a good start to the year for me, but the main focus is continuing to go out and get better every day.”

Vander Plas is just one of ten Bobcats that are in their first season playing for the green and white. With so many underclassmen and first-year transfers on the roster (two of which are in the starting lineup), Phillips knows that veteran leadership from players such as Doug Taylor and Gavin Block and will be extremely important to help reduce the growing pains.

“I told a lot of the newcomers earlier this year that if you don’t what you’re doing, just look at your seniors for guidance. It was especially important down in Jamaica after a couple tough games,” Phillips said. “It’s all just apart of the learning process, and sometimes you’ll have to take steps backwards along the way. Just going to work everyday is the only way to get better, and it’s more believable to hear that from a player than a coach.”

The Bobcats will host Marshall at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Convocation center before traveling to Xavier on Wednesday Dec. 5th.