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Published: 1/9/2003

UT lost to a good zone; it will see some more

Stan Joplin has well-stocked bookshelves in his office and he'll be scouring them today for something entitled Principles of a Zone Offense.

When the tape of last night's game at Savage Hall makes the rounds through the Mid-American Conference, you have to think that's primarily what the Rockets will see.

Northern Illinois landed an early-season haymaker 72-65 in a game that could come back to haunt Toledo when MAC Tournament seedings are determined.

What NIU's Rob Judson did last night didn't call for genius, just for a coach whose man-to-man ego didn't get in the way of a solid game plan, one that would best give his struggling, underdog team a chance to win.

It made all kinds of sense against a UT squad that had been shooting the lights out - 43 percent worth - from 3-point range and was coming off a stunning 81-76 road win against nationally ranked Michigan State.

The Rockets mostly live and die from the outside, so Northern extended its defense and dared UT to find other ways to win.

By ball movement.

By finding soft spots in the post.

By guard penetration.

By scoring along the baseline.

The Rockets did none of the above during the first half, the result being 28.6 percent shooting, and couldn't recover from a hole that grew to 17 points early in the second half.

“I don't know how much ego comes into play,'' Judson said, chuckling. “I just think most coaches have a strong belief in their systems and aren't always real flexible. We're like a lot of teams, mostly man-to-man. We haven't played many possessions of zone this season. But the way Toledo had been shooting it was worth a try. It was working, it was good, and I could see our players believing in it. So why change?''

No reason.

And the Rockets had better get used to it.

“Other teams will see how we struggled against the zone and figure they can do it too,'' said UT guard Nick Moore, who will have nightmares of NIU guard Jay Bates jumping out from the top of a 3-2 zone with pressure, pressure and more pressure.

“He'd pop out and it would look like a 1-2-2, but sometimes he actually went into a box-and-one on me,'' said Moore, who nonetheless made seven 3-pointers to provide the Rockets with just about all of their offense. “It kind of tricked us. We weren't ready for it.''

They will be now.

“I'd play zone against us,'' said Toledo coach Stan Joplin, who was actually more chagrined by his team's lethargic defense, especially in the paint. “Our offense was decent, I thought, in the second half. We reversed the ball better, got in the seams, went inside. But we were way too casual in the first half. We were impatient and didn't make the next pass.''

The MAC West is going to be interesting to watch. With Theron Smith of Ball State injured and out for the season, there is no single superstar and no great team.

Bowling Green, at 3-0, is the division's only unbeaten and, regardless of how well coached the Falcons may be, it is a longshot that such a thin roster will be able to stand up to the rigors of a conference schedule.

Toledo, with a sure-shot like Moore and others who will surely shoot and play better than they did last night, is as good a pick as any if the Rockets can come up with some sort of a consistent inside presence.

But they have to show up every night. That wasn't the case in UT's first home game since Dec. 21.

The Rockets are not as good as they looked against Michigan State nor as bad as they looked at St. Bonaventure in a 94-68 loss.

Fact is, sometimes a team plays like it's in a zone. And sometimes it has to know how to beat one.



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