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UT showing signs of team to keep eye on

01/08/2017, 12:34am EST
By BY DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Rockets win consecutive league games by at 15 points for first time since 2007

Our bad. 

Maybe these guys are pretty good. 

Just when we wondered if we should be out on this University of Toledo basketball season, the Rockets continued to pull us back in during their 91-76 victory over Miami on Saturday at Savage Arena. 

Two Mid-American Conference games. Two pillar-to-post beatdowns. 

That gets your attention no matter the opposition. 

Four days after their 86-54 home win over back-to-back league champion Buffalo — the most lopsided conference opener in school history — the Rockets (9-6, 2-0) kept flooring it against the improved but overmatched RedHawks (8-7, 1-1). 

Which isn’t to suggest the Rockets better brush up on the moonwalk in preparation to go dancing this March. A little (a lot) of perspective is needed. They’ve seen nothing yet in this MAC marathon. 

But it’s an encouraging start. 

You don’t win consecutive league games by at least 15 points for the first time since 2007 if you’re not doing something right. 

Or, for one Saturday night, a lot of things. Toledo got answers from its answers — Jon Jon Williams (25 points) and Steve Taylor (12 points, 12 rebounds) — and, more important, answers from its questions. 

Sophomore guard Jaelan Sanford (22 points, four assists) continued to show he can be a shooter and a playmaker, Nate Navigato emerged from a season-long shooting slump with five 3s, and freshman Justin Roberts — the only true point guard who plays — had a season-high five assists in 17 minutes. 

It was enough to at least begin wondering about Toledo’s place in a league as open as ever. A league so unsettled the Rockets could wallop Buffalo one night and that Bulls team could come back Saturday and thump MAC West favorite Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti. 

For now, the Rockets are enjoying the moment. 

“We just stayed together through moments of adversity,” Williams said, “and now we're having fun on the court.”

That wasn’t always the case. Or didn’t seem to be. 

It was only last month the season was deeply unsettled. The Rockets deserved the benefit of the doubt for four mostly competitive losses in November, but not so much in the following weeks. They returned home from a Thanksgiving tournament to hand away a game to Green Bay, slogged through an eight-point home win over woeful Detroit, and lost at Marshall in overtime. 

Worse still, the Rockets felt flawed at their foundation. 

To borrow from the popular Internet meme, coach Tod Kowalczyk had one job this offseason: Find a point guard. 

So he got three of them: Daniel Dzierzawski and Lucas Antunez from junior college and Roberts. 

It was not a job well done.

Dzierzawski, a combo guard, quit the team in November, while Antunez and Roberts were in over their heads, forcing Sanford to shift from shooting guard to the point.

Through seven games, the Rockets had a staggering 109 turnovers. 

It was a mess. 

But that’s the past. With one week in the books, the Rockets of 2017 are playing enthusiastic (if sometimes flawed) defense — they forced two shot-clock violations in a span of three possessions early Saturday — and flowing on offense. 

We still question how they will evolve, including, yes, at point guard. This offense needs a distributor. No matter how you spin it, the Rockets whiffed on their biggest offseason need. It still says here Sanford — a scorer first and second who has only 41 assists this season — would be better suited at shooting guard. He played especially well there in this game when Roberts also was on the floor.

But keeping an open mind never hurts. Sanford has appeared increasingly comfortable with the ball in his hands, and though Antunez remains on the bench, the 5-9 Roberts — the son of former St. John’s coach Norm Roberts — is developing into a sure-handed reserve. 

In that way, Toledo is finding new pieces right under its nose. Even bigger Saturday was Navigato — the Rockets’ top 3-point shooter last season — warming his puzzlingly cold hand. The sophomore was shooting 28 percent from deep before hitting 5 of 9 such attempts. 

The main difference between early in the season and Saturday? The Rockets had only 13 turnovers. 

“And Nate Navigato is making shots,” Kowalczyk said. ”He was playing well and getting open looks but just not making them. He’s a great shooter. Jon Jon has played at a high level all year. Steve's doing what he's doing. Jordan Lauf has been doing what he's doing. Justin Roberts has really solidified himself as the backup point guard. The little fella had five assists. That’s huge for us.”

Add it all together, and the Rockets — their RPI of 114 second in the MAC behind Akron — might yet turn a good league start into something more. 

Just when you were beginning to wonder, they pull you back in. 

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

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Toledo’s Jonathan Williams is fouled by Miami’s Dion Wade on Saturday. BLADE/LORI KING

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