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Toledo starts slow but has room to grow

12/02/2016, 12:49am EST
By BY DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Briggs: Rockets have held its own against formidable foes

Rockets start slow but have room to grow

UT guard Jonathan Williams has held this season on the Rockets' squad. BLADE PHOTO

If we didn’t know any better, we would say the Toledo men’s basketball team is in disarray. 

A Rockets program that needs to show it has not stalled just lost four times in 16 days, parted ways with a key reserve, concedes a scoreboard-straining 83.9 points per game, and produces more turnovers than a pastry chef. 

Heads must roll!

For once, we do know better. 

Truth is, these Rockets are just fine. 

Or not. But don’t read too much into November.

A closer look at their 3-4 start reveals a new-look team that has encouraged and exasperated and, more often than not, held its own against a formidable schedule. 

The Rockets opened with a one-point loss at St. Joseph’s, then fell twice to Middle Tennessee by a combined 13 points and once to UNC Wilmington by four-plus touchdowns during a Thanksgiving weekend tournament. All four defeats came to reigning NCAA tournament teams, including Middle Tennessee, which stunned second-seeded Michigan State last March and is considerably better this season. 

If nothing else, give UT coach Tod Kowalczyk credit. He opted not to puff up his veteran team with a who’s who of nobodies but steel them with a mid-major grinder the computers rate the 19th-toughest nonconference schedule in the nation. 

“We’re two plays away from a really good record,” Kowalczyk said. ”One defensive stop at St. Joe's and one made free throw against Middle Tennessee, and we would feel a whole lot better about it. ... The biggest thing I’m disappointed in is our turnovers. We've got to clean those up.”

That last part is an understatement. The Rockets have committed 109 turnovers and their minus-6.6 average turnover margin ranks 338th of 342 teams nationally, exaggerating the program’s continued defensive issues. 

What’s more, recall the two junior college transfers Toledo signed to address its point guard vacancy. One of them — combo guard Daniel Dzierzawski — left the team Monday while the other endures as a mystery. Lucas Antunez, the Rockets’ lone game-ready true point guard, missed the first four games because of an injury and played only 22 minutes over the weekend. 

Not ideal. Still, this Toledo team has a chance to be very good. 

All-MAC guard Jon Jon Williams has a lot of backup, most notably Marquette transfer Steve Taylor, a double-double menace who along with 6-11 redshirt freshman Luke Knapke should offset the loss of center Nathan Boothe. 

The media picked the Rockets to finish fourth in the MAC West — one spot higher than their finish last year — but merely reaching that bar can’t be acceptable. 

Not if a Rockets program three years removed from a 27-win season wants to prove last winter was a blip and not a trend. And not in a league and division as wide open as ever. For perspective, the worst team Toledo has played, Youngstown State, handled league favorite Akron. Five teams — including Toledo — received first-place votes in the West. 

“I don’t think our program is a fourth-place program,” Kowalczyk said. “I really like this team. We’ve got room for growth, but we’ve got a lot of pieces and we’re deeper. We’re excited.”

So don’t sweat it — yet. This is just the start. 

Could be of something big. Who knows?

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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Tag(s): College  Toledo  David Briggs