Rockets rely on mixture of veterans and newcomersWritten by Chris Schmidbauer | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A coach’s second year at the helm of a collegiate sports program is normally when fans, supporters and the team alike have a general sense in which direction the team is heading. Unfortunately for UT men’s head basketball coach Gene Cross, the Rockets enter Cross’ second year at the wheel with as much uncertainty as they did his first.
Cross’ Rockets have only four letter winners returning and added nine newcomers, to a squad that compiled a 7-25 overall record last season. The second-year coach knows there is still much to be sorted out before the midnight blue and gold hit the hardwood for their season opener Nov. 14 against Eastern Illinois.
“Last season was very disappointing for all of us,” Cross said. “Nobody likes to lose as much as we did. We have many new guys who we are molding and teaching. We are trying to build a solid core and base for where we are going with this program.”
Cross will rely heavily on his mixture of veterans and young talent to move the program in the right direction this season. Two of those veterans are forward Justin Anyijong and Larry Bastfield. Bastfield and Anyijong were named captains for the upcoming season, along with true freshman Jake Barnett.
“Larry and Justin both demonstrated great leadership for us during our summer workouts and then when we came back this fall,” Cross said. “Their leadership is going to be very important for us this season.”
Anyijong is the Rockets’ top returning scorer (9.7 ppg) and rebounder (6.4 rpg) from last season. The 6-foot-9-inch forward from Grand Rapids, Mich. will provide Toledo with an inside and outside scoring threat this season.
“I am going to do my best to help my team out,” Anyijong said. “I would like to be more consistent inside on the block offensively, but I am going to improve my defense too. I want to be a leader defensively and a guy that our team can look to when we need a stop on the other end of the floor.”
Bastfield will once again be the Rockets’ floor general, a role he inherited midway through last season when he took over the starting point guard slot. The Baltimore, Md., native led UT with a team best assist/turnover ratio of 1.5 and averaged nearly three assists during MAC conference play during the 2008-2009 campaign.
The Rockets will also look to junior forward Mouhamed Lo to provide leadership on the court this season. Lo (5.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg) looks to continue to establish himself in the post for Toledo.
“Mouhamed plays as hard as he can when he is out there,” Cross said. “He can be a leader on this team whether he is a captain or not. He can be a true leader for us based on many different things.”
Lo is looking to do whatever he can to help the newcomers along.
“We just need to stay positive and come here ready to work everyday,” he said. “Our team has changed and I am just going to try and be a rebounder and a defensive presence for this team. Anything extra that comes along is a bonus to me.”
One newcomer who has many in the Glass City excited for this season is the aforementioned Jake Barnett. The 6-foot-6-inch guard has already made a lasting impression on his head coach.
“Jake stands out because of his skills and his leadership ability,” Cross said. “His work ethic is tremendous. He is one of the hardest workers I have seen since I started coaching.”
Cross has seen promise in other players, too.
“Malcolm Griffin has been a pleasant surprise for us too,” he said. “We recruited him to be a wing or a shooting guard, and he will play a lot of time at point guard for us. He has tremendous court vision and unselfishness on the floor, and I am excited to watch him go out there and play in game situations.”
Start High School product Devin Russell is expected to be red shirted, to work on his skills to help the Rockets down the road.
“Devin is getting bigger and stronger,” Cross said. “He has a great defensive presence about him, but he is raw offensively. He has work to do on that side of his game. I am excited about the way he is developing and what I envision him doing down the road for this team.”
Russell is excited to work on his game and continue playing in front of his friends and family.
“Staying home for school was better for me,” the freshman center said. “I want everyone who saw me grow up to watch me continue to grow as a player. This is hard work, though. You have to be stronger mentally and physically.”
It is players like Russell that coach Cross looks forward to working with this season.
“Teaching players is one of the joys of coaching,” he said. “The most fun is watching them get what we are trying to accomplish on the court. It has been fun for me, and I am appreciative of the opportunity to coach them.”