UT Rockets ride defense to unblemished 6-0 MAC recordWritten by Nabil Shaheen | | firstname.lastname@example.org
To understand the hot start in conference play the Rockets are off to, you have to put it in perspective.
The last time UT started off this well in the Mid-American Conference, no one on the current roster was even born yet.
In fact, head coach Stan Joplin had just graduated from UT the year before.
But that is where the Rockets currently sit posting a 10-8 overall record, including a perfect 6-0 in the MAC as of Jan. 25.
And as the Rockets picked up a 76-60 win Jan. 21 over Northern Illinois, it was their 12th straight regular season win in the MAC, all after a 1-7 start to conference play last year that began with the very same Huskies.
“We just came out with a lot of energy,” junior guard Kashif Payne said. “Last year we came out kind of slow and they got up on us so we wanted to do that this year.”
That they did in a game that saw just one tie and one lead change.
“Night and day,” said head coach Stan Joplin of last year and this year. “Last year we played Northern and I think mentally, we weren’t ready to play, we just thought we could show up and win. We’ve learned from that.”
Toledo struggled through a 4-7 start to its season this year, playing six of their first eight games on the road.
Enter the start of MAC play and the Rockets have yet to lose in 2007.
“We’re the lead dog now and we’re going to get everybody’s best game,” Joplin said. “So we have to be able to handle that in the right way.”
They have been handling it thus far with a balanced scoring attack including a quartet of double-digit scorers led by senior forward Keonta Howell, who averages 15.5 points per game; senior guard Justin Ingram (14.0 ppg), senior forward Florentino Valencia (10.5 ppg) and Payne (10.3 ppg).
That offense, in large part, is generated by pressure defense, a stifling attack that tied a MAC record of 18 steals in the game against Northern Illinois.
“Our focus is defense,” Payne said. “We get our energy from defense — getting up on our man and that creates opportunities for us.”
That might be the biggest difference between last year and this year, Joplin said, and Payne leading the attack paces it all.
“It starts with him,” Joplin said. “If he can put pressure on the ball, it disrupts a lot of offenses. And then it becomes contagious. And then if we can get up and deny the next pass and play good team defense, we can get a lot of easy baskets that way.”
With such an athletic team, Joplin said at times, he has to slow players down while other times it’s the opposite.
“A lot of times when you have players like Jonathan Amos it’s like, ‘Instead of 150 miles an hour, let’s go 90,’ ” Joplin said. “But some guys you have to light a fire under them all the time.
“It’s a process, but I would like to be in a situation where it’s, ‘Hey, let’s tone it down,’ instead of getting them fired up. I’m just going to try and stay after the guys and get them to play hard and keep challenging them as best as I possibly can.”
That challenge will continue, and while the Rockets are getting hot, it’s not to be confused with contentment, Ingram said.
“I wouldn’t say this is our best ball, but we’re playing pretty good,” he said. “We’re just getting better and that’s all we’re trying to do. We don’t want to peak yet because we want to be playing our best basketball in March. We’re just continuing to get better.”