Toledo men ready to begin the season Friday, face unusual circumstances
Published: Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 05:11
NCAA sanctions have taken the possibility of postseason play off the table for the UT men’s basketball team, but the Rockets have every intention of making a run for Mid-American Conference regular season title.
Toledo registered the second-largest turnaround in Division I basketball last year with a 19-17 record, advancing to the postseason for the first time in five campaigns. Improving upon that record, however, has been made more difficult by the NCAA penalty structure for the program’s low Academic Progress Rate under former head coaches Gene Cross and Stan Joplin.
The team is to play eight of its first nine games on the road, including contests at Minnesota, Cleveland State and Detroit.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” said UT junior forward Rian Pearson, a second team All-MAC selection in 2011-12. “We’re going to have to channel our energy and just try to get as many wins as we can before we come back home.”
The extended road trip begins Friday against a familiar foe, Loyola University Chicago. Toledo hosted the Ramblers last Dec., suffering a narrow 57-55 defeat.
“I was disappointed with how we played in that game,” said UT head coach Todd Kowalczyk. “But they’re going to be improved and we’re going to be improved so it will be a good test for us.”
In the teams’ most recent meeting, 6-foot-8 senior forward Ben Avercamp racked up 31 points on 50 percent (13-of-26) shooting against the Rockets. He was, however, the only LUC player to tally double figures in the scoring column. Sophomore forward Christian Thomas added 9 points and grabbed a game-high 13 boards for the Loyola.
“Averkamp certainly had a great game against us,” Kowalczyk said. “We’ll have to do a better job of defending him and making it more personal.”
The Ramblers outrebounded Toledo 21-15 last season, including 6-1 on the offensive glass, resulting in an 11-3 differential in second chance points.
At 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, freshman center Nathan Boothe should give Toledo a more physical presence in the post and potentially decrease the rebound disparity. Boothe — who is also a force on the offensive end — recorded a team-high 15 points in last week’s 75-52 exhibition win against Northwestern Ohio.
“Nathan is a guy we feel is a very talented freshman,” Kowalczyk said. “He’s our starting center from day one and he has a chance to be a special player here.”
Junior center Richard Wonnell will move to the bench to make room for Boothe, who will join the other four returning starters, including Pearson (league-high 16.4 points and team-high 8.3 rebounds per game) and reigning MAC Freshman of the Year Juice Brown.
He was second on the team last season with 11.9 ppg and fourth in MAC with nearly five assists per contest.
“I try to do everything my teammates need me to do and get to the rim and start inside out,” Pearson explained.
Absent from the Rockets roster will be an important factor in last year’s turnaround, forward Curtis Dennis. The All-MAC Honorable Mention awardee averaged 13 points off the bench for Toledo but transferred to Iona in the offseason in light of UT’s postseason ban.
“[We will replace Dennis] by committee,” Kowalczyk said. “Matt Smith and Reese Holliday are both capable of scoring off the bench for us and A.J. Matthews and Josh Lemons are guys who can step up and give us minutes as well. When you lose 13 points a game I don’t know that there’s one guy who can take those 13 but I expect Juice to score more, Dominque [Buckley] to score more as well and we’ll certainly have more scoring out of our centerpiece in Boothe.”
Averkamp will anchor the Loyola attack, boasting team-highs in points (15.4 ) and rebounds (7.1) in 2011. His supporting cast, however, will be of a considerably different makeup this time around.
The Ramblers, who ranked 329th in the country with 62.7 possessions per game and 243rd with 14.4 turnovers per game last year, feature two new point guards — Iowa transfer Cully Payne and heralded freshman Jeff White. Five other newcomers have also been added to the LUC squad, giving the Rockets an edge in experience.
As with all UT’s opponents, however, Loyola will have more time to prepare for the matchup as NCAA restrictions have reduced Toledo’s practice time 20 weekly hours over six days a week to 16 hours in five days.
“We’re going to be as prepared as Loyola is, we’re going to play harder than Loyola is and we’re going to move on,” Kowalczyk said.
Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. Friday at Gentile Arena in Chicago.