ATHENS, Ohio -- Fourth-year Ohio men's basketball head coach Saul Phillips doesn't play the schedule game. He leaves that to his father.
Before every season, Charlie Phillips takes a look at his son's upcoming schedule and writes down what he expects from the Ohio basketball team for the season. He never makes a comment about it during the season but always makes it a point to show it to his son after the season is over.
There's a reason why Phillips never plays the schedule game -- college basketball is so unpredictable. Give a quick look back at last season for the Bobcats. What was supposed to be a run at an NCAA tournament berth turned into a season where they were forced to play without reigning Mid-American Conference Player of the Year Antonio Campbell.
"There's so many variables that go into a season," said Phillips. "I get a kick out of people who think they know what's next in basketball. It's way too unpredictable of a sport."
This season, it seems as if everybody thinks that Ohio doesn't have a chance at what people were buzzing about a year ago. A total of seven players left the team -- four transferred and three graduated. 10 players return from 2016 but just a handful of have seen a large number of minutes.
Still, of the 10 returning, the few who saw a large of number of minutes showed growth throughout the rest of the season and this past summer.
When Campbell went down for the year, forward Jason Carter stepped into the role of point producer in the paint and started the last 15 games of the year. In conference play, he averaged 12.7 points per game and totaled a team-high 144 rebounds en route to being named an All-MAC Freshman Team selection. He is now a Preseason All-MAC East Division Team selection heading into this sophomore year.
Carter spent the entire summer working on his jump shot, specifically stretching it to the three-point line. Everyone has expectations for him now. Phillips wants him to become a more vocal leader on the floor, something he hasn't really ever had to do. Carter wants to help stretch the floor and make plays for his teammates. It'll take some time, and he knows it. At times, Carter has been fast to react when he doesn't make a three-pointer. He needs to know he can't do everything at once.
"When (my kids) were really little and they'd have temper tantrums, I'd just start yelling and screaming louder than they were," said Phillips. "That's my strategy with Jason, too."
Dartis, a junior, is expected to stay in his shooting guard role. He finished last season shooting 44.1 percent (86-of-195) from three-point range, which ranked as the best in the conference and 11th-best in the nation.
As for Laster, he is the only member of the senior class who is on a scholarship and the lone recruit from Phillips' initial recruiting class four years ago. He hasn't started a game for the Bobcats since his freshman year, but, like Carter, he stepped up at the end of last season, averaging 7.6 points per game and shooting 56.8 percent (54-of-95) from the field over the final 18 games of the season. Laster stepped up multiple times for the Bobcats during that span, including in a 78-69 win at Northern Illinois in late January when he scored 14 points and knocked down a career-high three three-pointers. From that point on, he went from being a role player to a core member of Ohio's rotation. Without that performance in the NIU game, and how he performed after, Phillips doesn't think Ohio would've finished second in the league. This season, Laster will be looked to for leadership on the court.
"Now, we've lost all them and now I have to be the leader," said Laster. "I've always been a leader, even when I was young. I just lead by example, you know. I say stuff people can relate to. I've been here four years now. I've seen this team transform from so many different ways. Right now, it's just a different team."
One of the other variables of the 2017-18 season will be the five additions the Bobcats made this offseason -- four freshmen and a graduate transfer. Rookie guards Zach Butler and Teyvion Kirk join the roster, and freshmen forwards Ben Vander Plas and A.J. Gareri and graduate forward Kevin Mickle will add to the Bobcats' frontcourt.
Kirk and Butler have been competing for the point guard position, but it's expected that junior guard/forward Gavin Block will take care of those duties when the season starts against Alabama A&M on Saturday (Nov. 11) at the Convocation Center. In last Saturday's 80-57 exhibition game win over Capital, Block started the game at the point. At times in the second half, though, Kirk ran the offense well when the Bobcats went on a run.
"TK got a lot of run in the second half because we were good when he was out there," said Phillips. "And don't complicate it any more than that, right?"
The player who will make the quickest impact is Mickle, a graduate transfer from Florida Gulf Coast University. A 6-foot-7-inch forward, he had a team-high 19 points off of the bench against Capital.
"One of the biggest things in my game is the energy I bring," said Mickle. "My high energy is something I'm really known for. Once I have that, everything falls into place."
That energy could be seen Saturday and in practice as well. Behind Laster, Mickle has produced the most points when the team scrimmages. He also helps strengthen the Bobcats on the defensive end, an area in which Ohio took a good step forward last year and will try to be built upon this year.
Phillips is looking forward to incorporating a lineup that could see Mickle at the three, Carter at the four and junior forward Doug Taylor at the five.
Still, some questions surround the team. Who will bring up the ball? Who will become the vocal leader on the court? How will the Bobcats react to some tough opponents early in the year?
Those questions won't be answered for some time and it's hard to say what the answeres to those questions will be because, as Phillips said, college basketball is unpredictable.