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Published: Wednesday, 3/14/2012

COMMENTARY

Freshman grows up with Rockets

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

There was a time earlier this season when Julius Brown looked a bit overmatched.

And, to be frank, so did the University of Toledo's Rockets.

No coincidence.

A lot has changed since then.

The slender freshman point guard known as "Juice" guided UT to its first postseason win in 11 years Tuesday night, scoring 15 points and dishing off a career-high 11 assists in a 76-63 win over McNeese State in the CIT's opening round.

That's nine wins in the last 12 games for the Rockets. And that's no coincidence either.

"Juice went through a lull in January, when we first got to league play," UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. "The first time through the MAC West he struggled. It was a matter of dealing with the intensity and the physical level of conference play. There was a learning curve, but fortunately for us it was a short window."

Toledo went 1-4 during its first round of MAC West games and then dropped three straight to East Division teams as January turned into February. Brown's stats through that stretch included a lot of so-so assist and single-digit scoring nights.

He snapped out of that with nine straight double-figure scoring games and performances in which seven or eight assists became the norm. And the Rockets started winning. Like we said, it's no coincidence.

"He's really good and he's going to be great," said Curtis Dennis, who came off the bench at Savage Arena to score 18 points, a few of the baskets coming on assists by Brown. "UT fans have a lot to look forward to with Juice. He's going to be a dominant player in the MAC."

Brown served notice of that, earning the league's freshman-of-the-year award for 2011-12.

"It's his work ethic and demeanor," Dennis continued. "He comes every day with a chip on his shoulder. He wants to hear criticism. He wants to work to get better every day."

As that has happened, and as he has become more comfortable with his teammates, Brown has turned into the type of leader coaches seek in a point guard.

"Rian Pearson jacked up a 3 in the first half," Kowalczyk said, referring to one of UT's few poor shots Tuesday. "And the first guy to say something to him didn't have to be Tod Kowalczyk. Juice took care of it, and that's a healthy thing for a team."

The Rockets didn't take many bad shots and didn't miss many, good or bad. They were 27 of 44 (.614), including 8 of 17 (.471) from 3-point range.

There are a lot of assists to be had on a night like that.

"I found the shooters and the big thing is that my teammates finished so many shots, so I thank them," Brown said.

Juice admits that when the Rockets got into league play in January the game got a lot harder.

"It was a matter of the talent level, the fact that teams take things really serious and scout everything every player does," he said. "I think it was good for me to go through a little adversity."

This marked the 14th time Brown has dished out seven or more assists, padding stats which, entering Tuesday's game, had him ranked sixth in the nation among freshmen. He had but two turnovers against McNeese and his totals for the season now are 175 assists vs. 113 turnovers.

"He'd always been asked to score, but he's well-rounded now," Kowalczyk said. "Juice has matured a lot more than I ever could have hoped."

So have the Rockets, 35 games in the books and still playing.

No coincidence.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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