Jarod Oldham was young, around 5 years old, when his father gave him his first lesson in basketball. He told his son he needed to have the ball tied to a string. You know kids at that age. They take things literally. Little Jarod was ready to search for a ball with a string attached when his father took him aside a moment and explained.
Jimi Oldham returned home after work to his son practicing in the driveway and found him putting on an astonishing display. Jarod was handling the ball as if it really were on a string. He was dribbling with both hands, between his legs and behind his back against imaginary defenders.
“I gave him some drills to work on,” Jimi Oldham said Saturday. “I came home and he was dribbling like he was doing it his whole life. He was doing things that older players still can’t do. You see guys here that can’t dribble with one hand without looking at the ball. And he was flawless. I said, ‘You there!’ ”
Oldham played for his father, an assistant coach, until his senior year at Eisenhower High in Decatur, Ill. What his father didn’t teach him, Oldham learned on the playgrounds and in local gyms. His game took shape by playing against older kids. He had to share the ball and play sound defense or he would have been watching from the sideline.
“We talked about him becoming a complete player instead of one facet,” Jimi Oldham said. “We worked on all of that. He’s a team guy who would rather drop a dime than take a shot. He’s always been like that. He would rather be a facilitator and a leader.”
In his four seasons at UB, Oldham has become a case study in basketball fundamentals. It’s common with point guards. They play responsibly or they don’t play. It explained why Oldham resisted the urge to get swept up Saturday when his teammates turned their 88-65 victory over lesser Bowling Green into a highlight show.
Oldham dropped a few dimes Saturday.
Javon McCrea picked up the loose change.
McCrea had an afternoon to remember. UB’s all-time leading scorer had a career-high 34 points and made the first three-pointer of his career. He dominated the first half, helped UB build a comfortable lead after intermission and left Alumni Arena to a standing ovation that he richly deserved on Senior Day.
The Bulls had a jolly old time before Bowling Green essentially hit the showers with about seven minutes remaining. McCrea spent his final moments getting exercise and working on his perimeter game. Even Bobby Hurley couldn’t hold back a smile after Shannon Evans left a pass off the backboard for Justin Moss to convert a thunderous jam.
Yes, there was much to celebrate Saturday.
UB won its first outright division title in the Mid-American Conference. They’re 19-9 this season, including a 13-5 record in the conference. Their conference victory total is the most in school history. The Bulls earned the third seed when the conference tournament begins Thursday in Cleveland. The tourney winner goes to the NCAAs.
“It’s always good to see the guys having fun,” Oldham said. “It was a celebration for the senior class and the guys coming up. But we still have a goal in mind. We want to get to Cleveland and do something that’s never been done, like we have all year. I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t interested, but I was focused on winning.”
McCrea is the best player in the conference and will largely determine how deep UB plays into the postseason. Evans is an electrifying freshman who feeds off the spotlight. Josh Freelove would jack up three-pointers from the bench if he could. Jarryd Skeete showed flashes of brilliance throughout the season. All are important figures.
The Bulls are a dangerous team, confirmed when they won eight of their final 10 games. But they’re not going anywhere in the conference tournament unless they get dependable play from Oldham, their senior point guard and best defensive player. More than anyone else, even more than McCrea, he dictates UB’s direction.
“It’s big having the ball close to you and knowing the right basketball play,” Oldham said. “A lot of people get caught up in statistics and all that. If you play the right way, those things will take care of themselves. The little things you do, without anybody watching, that’s what’s going to take you over the top.”
Oldham’s statistics Saturday were reflective of an ordinary afternoon. He made only one field goal and finished with eight points, five rebounds and four assists. He kicked back and mostly watched while his teammates put on a dazzling show with their assortment of dunks, no-look passes and flashy fast-break buckets.
If there was a time and place to entertain the crowd at Alumni Arena, it was Saturday afternoon in the regular-season finale. He could have pulled back at any time. He and Hurley both knew that’s not going to work in the conference tournament. It’s certainly not going to fly if they reach the NCAA Tournament.
In the postseason, the teams that are most fundamentally sound – the ones that play smart, play together, play good defense and don’t turn over the ball – have the best chance of winning. Hurley doesn’t trust anyone more than he does Oldham, who has become an extension of his coach, if not his father, on the floor.
Oldham doesn’t just have the ball tied to a string. He has the team in his hands.
“He plays the position the way the position is supposed to be played,” said Hurley, an authority of the highest order. “He’s a great leader. He runs our team. He makes pressure look bad. Guys try to pressure him and he’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He guards the ball as good as anybody I’ve been around and tortures the best player on the perimeter and gives you everything he has. It’s an honor to coach him.”