The Bulldogs’ next three opponents have all accomplished what the Elis have never been able to do: clinch a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Following a 98-55 win over Allegheny last weekend, the Bulldogs begin one of the toughest stretches in their schedule this year against Ohio on Sunday. The Bobcats qualified for the Big Dance in the 2004-’05 season and lost a close first-round game to Florida by five points.
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In other words, playing Ohio on the road is going to be entirely different from demolishing the Allegheny Gators in the friendly confines of Lee Amphitheater.
“We need to be tested,” head coach James Jones said. “Going to play in Dayton and playing in Ohio … I don’t think we’ll find two tougher places to play.”
Buoyed by three star recruits, two returning seniors and a precocious young point guard, Ohio had high hopes for last season and expected to be in the running for another postseason bid. If it weren’t for point guard Jeremy Fears’s turnover problems and trouble off the court, the Bobcats may have been able to meet their fans’ high expectations. Instead, head coach Tim O’Shea was forced to turn to inexperienced sophomore Antonio Chatman to run the one spot, and Fears transferred to Iowa State. Despite their inconsistencies from the point guard position, Ohio was competitive in the Mid-American Conference and finished the year with a 19-11 record. The Bobcats ended their season in the conference tournament with a loss to Kent State, the MAC’s eventual NCAA representative.
Ohio began this year’s campaign with an 83-66 win against Marist that highlighted the Bobcats’ strength and quickly exposed their weakness. Despite opening up a 15-point lead in the first half, O’Shea was reluctant to turn to his bench and stuck to a 7-man rotation. As a result, all five Bobcat starters finished the game in double figures. Forward Jerome Tillman and center Leon Williams both notched double-doubles and dominated the paint the entire game as the Bobcats out-rebounded the Marist Red Foxes 36-19.
Unsurprisingly, the Bulldogs have been stressing the importance of low post defense in practice.
“[Ohio] is a pretty good team with a couple of really good big guys,” guard Eric Flato ’08 said. “Coach Jones has emphasized post defense for the upcoming game.”
Considering that a freshman post player from a D-III team was able to exploit the Bulldogs for 14 points in 18 minutes, the Elis have reason to be worried. But the defense will undoubtedly benefit from the return of forward Ross Morin ’09 who missed the season opener with an infection. Morin, a Cincinnati native, figures to play a significant role in the Bulldogs’ rotation this season following a stellar rookie year. Despite the Elis’ talent in the frontcourt, keeping the Bobcats contained down low will be a team-wide responsibility.
“We’ve really been concentrating on post defense and transition defense,” forward Caleb Holmes ’08 said. “We’ve been working on the guards helping out and doubling down on the big men.”
On the other end, the Bulldogs need to start strong and establish an offensive rhythm early. Against Allegheny, the Bulldogs opened the game shooting one-for-12 from beyond the 3-point line despite getting wide-open shots at the basket. The Bobcats aren’t going to be nearly as generous. Marist shot only 33.9 percent from the field against Ohio and their two star players, Hartford native Jared Jordan and senior guard Will Whittington, combined to shoot 12 for 39, thanks mostly to an incredible defensive effort by Bobcat guard Whitney Davis.
Although the Bulldogs still have two months before conference play begins, the next few games will provide a valuable test for a team hoping to win its first Ivy League title since 2001.
“It’s still early, but these are going to be two tough tests for us,” Holmes said. “They’re going to teach us some things for the long run. It’s always good to play against higher majors. It’ll give us a good test to let us know where we’re at.”