There will come a time, Gene Cross hopes, when his Toledo Rockets will dictate the tempo of a game, running the floor fearlessly, stalking opponents at the defensive end like a pickpocket in a dark alley, treating the ball like it has a price tag on it, creating panic instead of panicking, reading and reacting to fill gaps, screening and muscling defenders, seeing the floor and making the extra pass and finding the wide-open shooter, crashing the paint like they own it and going for the jugular when blood starts floating on the water.
There will come a time, Gene Cross hopes, when his Rockets are the Dayton Flyers, who came into Savage Arena last night and won for the 13th time in 14 games this season.
Brian Gregory, a one-time UT assistant, inherited an NCAA tournament-ready team six years ago when he arrived in Dayton. But the Flyers stumbled to losing records, both overall and in league play, during the 2005-06 season. They've bounced back to go 55-24 since, including last night's 77-63 victory, so it can be done and it can be done quickly. Dayton should be popping up on the national polls soon and is among the premier teams in a state that seems filled with a number of very good ones.
Toledo is part of that state and the roughly 140 miles between the two cities, based on the success of their respective college basketball teams, is either Alaska-pipeline long or like jumping over a puddle. It's a matter of perspective, considering the Rockets are now 2-11.
"I tell our guys every day that we're much better than our
record indicates," Cross said. "And I feel that way after this game too. I feel like we can compete. We're getting a lot from Jon [Amos, 23 points last night], and Justin [Anyijong, 16 points and 12 rebounds] keeps coming along, and we know what Ty [Kent, 12 points] is capable of doing. We just need to tighten up some holes.
"You know those old light bulbs? You'd hear that z-zz-zzz sound and then it would flicker a little. That's where we are. We're flickering, but the light is starting to come on."
It flickers, but then there is a lapse, maybe two. There is a bad pass on offense that leads to a missed communication on defense that leads to a bad decision on a drive that leads to somebody's head going down and letting his man pop free for an open 3-pointer. It can happen in an instant and another game goes down the tubes in the process.
"I see it on film; we'll make a mistake and then our concentration level isn't where it has to be for the next play," Cross said.
He'll see it on the film of last night's game too. No, the Rockets do not deal well with adversity. Right now, it's impossible to jump over the puddle.
Maybe it's a recruiting class or two away, a big man here, a dead-eye outside shooter there. Maybe it's even closer. Cross thinks it can still happen this season. After a home game Tuesday against Rhode Island caps what has been a fairly demanding and road-heavy non-league slate, the Rockets step into Mid-American Conference play and, based on early returns, the MAC slate should be more manageable, to put it politely.
To be less polite, we could point out none of the six MAC West Division teams owns a winning record and that, collectively, they are 19-54. Yes, that light at the end of the tunnel could be the league season. Or it could be a locomotive.
Gregory, a Toledo assistant under Stan Joplin during the 1996-97 season, doubts it is the latter.
"Gene's team is starting to come along," Gregory said. "They're playing better. They have a tremendous facility here to recruit to. He'll build it back up. This was, what, their fourth home game? It's January. That's hard. They're getting better and they're going to keep getting better."
That may be the patter of a gracious coach, but it is what Cross is seeing and saying too. Being Dayton-like may be a ways off for the Rockets, but being good enough to win may not.