Gene Cross says UT team will benefit from tough seasonWritten by Scott Calhoun | | email@example.com
It’s painful finishing 4-28 in an NCAA men’s basketball season.
Just ask Toledo men’s head coach Gene Cross, who is 11-53 in his first two seasons as head coach of the Rockets.
The season that UT just completed was the program’s worst in the 95-year history of Rocket basketball. Their overall record also ranked fifth worst in Division I this winter.
“These kids don’t like the taste of losing,” Cross said. “My job right now is to get them to learn from this season and understand that winning doesn’t happen overnight.”
After a win against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne early in December, the Rockets put together a 19-game losing skid, including 14 consecutive Mid-American Conference losses.
A 48-45 squeaker over Ball State in the team’s home finale at Savage Arena on February 27 saved UT from possibly enduring its first ever winless MAC season, and from finishing the year without a victory since the campaign’s first month.
Since joining the MAC in 1951, the Rockets never finished worse than 3-13. In two seasons under Cross, the team is 0-31 on the road.
Another statistical tragedy for the Rockets it that UT finished second to last in Division I scoring offense at 54.2 PPG, barely edging out a 5-23 Dartmouth team that sputtered along at 53.9 per at the bottom of the Ivy League barrel. That’s 333rd out of 334 teams. The Rockets ranked 330th nationally in turnover ratio at sub-4.2 and were last or close to it across the board in the remaining MAC statistical categories.
Fans accordingly fled Savage Arena this season, with the home attendance average dropping from 5,610 a year ago to 3,953 this year.
UT has not trudged through this nightmare with a favorable deck. Asking this team to put together a Cinderella run may have been an unrealistic expectation.
“They’ve been through a lot of hardship, but they’re getting experience that will manifest into something great in a matter of time,” said Cross.
A third of the way into the season, freshman guard Steve Albrecht, the team’s second leading scorer, suddenly left the program because he did not feel comfortable in Cross’s slash-style offense. Before Albrecht departed, the Rockets were averaging more than 60 points a contest, but afterward the team’s average dipped below 50 points per contest.
Then junior starting forward Mouhamed Lo, who was averaging 6.5 points and 4.9 rebounds, received a disciplinary suspension midway through the season and never suited back up.
Three players, who were already red shirted, were unavailable to help offset losses from a roster already lacking any senior leadership.
That is a lot for a young, inexperienced NCAA team to overcome, but three players were up to the challenge.
Guards Jake Barnett (12.9 pts, 71-192 3pt), Malcolm Griffin (7.1 pts), and forward Jordan Dressler (6.1 pts, 4.4 rebounds), all freshmen, have picked up vital experience, Cross said.
“You have to start with Barnett. He’s stepped in and established himself as a leader, which is something very rare for a freshman,” said Cross.
Cross said he was impressed with Dressler’s and Griffin’s play as well.
“Dressler played some really big games while having to step in and learn the speed of the game for a player his size,” he said. “Griffin missed the first seven games of the season with a broken hand. For him being able to come back and play, it made him much better from a basketball standpoint.”
They now join junior forward Justin Anyijong in solidifying the core of the team, which showed some late signs of an upswing on the horizon.
While UT ended with a 72-54 MAC tourney play-in loss at Buffalo, they committed just 12 turnovers, marking the team’s eighth straight MAC contest with 13 or less, which is a promising contrast to an abysmal overall season turnover ratio. Barnett (13 points) and Griffin (12 points) offered up solid balance to Anyijong’s team-high 14 points.
“Look at this as a motion picture and not as a standstill snapshot,” Cross said. “We’re trying to establish a new system here. What’s going on now will benefit this team so much in the future.”