Inexperienced Rockets show growthWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
With a roster that features the fifth-least experienced team in the nation and just two upperclassmen—one of whom won’t be eligible to play until the end of the fall semester—starting the 2011-12 campaign on the road may have seemed like a bad idea for Toledo, but not to these Rockets.
UT went 3-1 in the Texas-Pan American Tip-Off Classic in Edinburg, Texas, its best start to a season since posting the same mark back in the 2005-06 campaign.
“I feel good that our guys are learning how to win,” Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Now, we’re still a long ways away. We’re still a young, inexperienced team that’s searching for some leadership, but overall—I tell you what—it’s been a fun team to coach.”
While the season has only just begun for the Rockets, this year’s group has shown growth. Not only did Toledo win its first road game since 2008, but it also showed flashes of what it’s capable of accomplishing this year. UT averaged 80 points per game in the tournament and had at least three players reach double figures in scoring in each one of its four contests.
Last year, the Rockets ranked last in the Mid-American Conference in scoring with an average of 57.9 points per game.
“I think we need to get a lot better on our ball screen defense and we need to do a better job scrambling in our forced traps,” Kowalczyk said. “Our rebounding numbers still need to improve, but offensively, I think particularly when we don’t turn it over we’re a very efficient and talented offensive team.”
Leading that offensive efficiency so far is sophomore guard Rian Pearson, who averaged 18 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in the Texas-Pan American Tip-Off Classic. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound transfer from UW-Green Bay also shot 56.9 percent from the field and 86.7 percent from the free-throw line.
“I think that was a bigger challenge for us and I think we matched our challenge,” Pearson said of starting this season on the road. “We could’ve ended out [the tournament] 4-0, but unfortunately we didn’t get the first win. We’ll bounce back and try to get another win here at home.”
Joining Pearson in double-figure scoring averages are freshman point guard Julius “Juice” Brown (14.3 ppg), sophomore forward Matt Smith (12 ppg) and junior guard Dominique Buckley (11.8 ppg). Kowalczyk entered Texas last weekend knowing his group’s scoring ability, but left impressed with their toughness.
In its first game of the tournament, Toledo trailed by eight points to Texas State early in the second half before rallying to make it a two-point contest with 16.6 seconds left. UT trailed by as many as 12 against USC-Upstate in its second game and won 75-70 in the absence of Kowalczyk, who missed the contest with a stomach flu virus.
“I think we’re a resilient group that battles and really enjoys competing,” Kowalczyk said.
Sophomore guard Reese Holliday experienced just four victories in the 2010-11 campaign, so starting this season 3-1—albeit on the road—was a welcomed change of pace.
“I think it’s good that we started off on the road because good teams are good on the road as well as at home, too,” said Holliday, who is averaging 8.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. “So I think we needed that more than anything.”
Toledo will see a familiar face when it hosts UIC (1-2) on Saturday. Flames’ sophomore forward Hayden Humes left the Rockets in May after Toledo was penalized three scholarship players by the NCAA this year for failing to have an Academic Progress Rate (APR) score of at least 925. Humes, who had a 3.43 GPA in two years at UT, was granted a legislative relief waiver by the NCAA, allowing him to play for UIC this season.
“That’ll be fun for the bigs,” Pearson said of seeing Humes again. “DeLino [Dear], that’s his boy, so that’ll be pretty fun.”
In addition to their first official home game, the Rockets will also get to spend Thanksgiving as a team.
“I’ve got 30 people coming over to my house [on Thanksgiving],” Kowalczyk said. “We just moved into our house on Friday. I was gone, and [Nov. 22] was the first night I had a chance to sleep in it. It’s a mess. There’s boxes everywhere and we’ve got 30 people coming over, so I feel bad for my wife.”
Tip-off for Toledo’s matchup with the Flames is slated for 7 p.m. on Saturday at Savage Arena.