ATHENS, Ohio -- Fourth-year Ohio men's basketball head coach Saul Phillips has depended on guard Mike Laster in times of need. He was Phillips' first recruit at Ohio. He's stepped up when a player is injured and even led at times.
This year, Laster doesn't have a choice whether or not he wants to lead. As a utility player, he's always been willing to accept his role on the team. He listens. And Phillips has given him a new role: be the leader for a team in need of veteran guidance.
"He's everything a senior should be," said Phillips. "You look at how's he progressed, the workman-like way he's gone about his career. He's got a toughness. His example he makes will be on the floor."
Last year, Laster was depended on down the stretch when 2016 Mid-American Conference Player of the Year Antonio Campbell was injured. He averaged 7.6 points per game and shot 56.8 percent (54-of-95) from the field -- including 48.4 percent (15-of-31) from deep -- over the final 18 games of the season. Laster stepped up big 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 3-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.
"The growth he's made is so big," said Phillips. "If he doesn't do what he did from the NIU game, and on, we don't finish the way we do. No way."
The Bobcats will enter 2017 without Laster's former roommates, Campbell and 2017 First Team All-MAC pick Jaaron Simmons. The Bobcats have 10 players returning from 2016, but just a handful who saw a large number of minutes.
Ohio welcomed in five freshmen and a graduate transfer this summer. Laster is the only true scholarship senior on this team that has played in Athens all four years.
Laster's already taken one of those freshmen under his wing -- guard Teyvion Kirk. The two go at it in practice, each bringing a toughness that will be important for Ohio this season.
"I've been here four years now. I've seen this team transform from so many different ways," said Laster. "Right now, it's just a different team."
In a way, Phillips and Laster have grown up together in Athens. Laster is the only member of this senior class who was recruited by Phillips. The two have gone through the growing pains together: A tough freshman year, a sophomore year of hope and a junior year that didn't end the way they had hoped.
Now comes Laster's senior year. The two set a goal when they came to Ohio, and it hasn't changed: To make a run at the MAC Championship every year.
The only difference this year will be Laster has to take a hold of this team from the beginning. He has to be one of the main leaders right away. He'll do it by leading by example, and he thinks he's already started to lead, too, just by putting in long hours this summer and working with younger players.
"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."
Laster hasn't always been in the spotlight. He started a career-high 17 games his freshman year but has made no starts since. But for him, it's always been the same, put long hours in the gym, work on his 3-pointers and, as he puts it, working on those handles.
Junior guard/forward Gavin Block has seen most of it firsthand, how he always brings the same mentality and toughness to practice. Block also wants to have a leader that has the character to be there for his team, even though he may not be leading the team in points or minutes.
Phillips agrees, and, for the time being, he doesn't see Laster's upcoming role changing at all.
"He's an indispensable member of this team," said Phillips.