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Monday, December 29, 2014
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Published: Wednesday, 10/30/2013

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Expect more from Rockets post Boothe

Toledo hasn't had this much talent in decades

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

With all due respect to the players who have come and gone over the past three decades, the last time there was this much talent on the basketball court at the University of Toledo a gent named Bob Nichols was the coach.

Forget the recent scholarship restrictions and last year’s postseason ban. The mess has been cleaned up, the shelves have been stocked, and the Rockets, who were tabbed Tuesday as near-unanimous favorites to capture the Mid-American Conference West title, appear loaded for bear.

As a result, said coach Tod Kowalczyk, it will be a time of sacrifice for some UT players.

“With this depth of talent, everybody who played the last couple years will sacrifice minutes and shots,” Kowalczyk said.

That will include small forward Rian Pearson and point guard Juice Brown, both named to the preseason All-MAC team. It will include everybody except…

“The only guy who will take more shots will be Nathan Boothe,” Kowalczyk said.

Boothe, a 6-foot-10 post player, started all 28 games last season as a true freshman, averaging almost 25 minutes, 8.3 points, and 5.2 rebounds with 42 blocked shots.

He is best remembered for a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer against Miami, but mostly Boothe did the black-and-blue dirty work in the paint. Frankly, his production was as consistently good as the Rockets have realized from that position in quite some time.

Now expect more.

Kowalczyk said Brown and Boothe are the most improved players on the team and gives assistant coach Jason Kalsow credit for the latter.

“The guy’s just a gym rat,” Kalsow said of Boothe. “We don’t have to ask him to come in for extra work. He asks us to come in and work with him. I haven’t been around too many players more interested in getting better.”

It took Boothe some time last season to get a feel for the speed of the game, the size and ​physicality of the opposition, and — early on — struggled occasionally to get shots off.

Since the end of last season, Kalsow said the big man has gotten stronger, improved his conditioning, footwork, and face-up post moves, and developed a deft jump shot off having his back to the basket.

“He’s such a well-rounded shooter now,” Kalsow said.

Boothe spent some of the summer at home in Gurnee, Ill., north of Chicago about 15 minutes from the Wisconsin line, working for a couple hours daily on the court with his old AAU coach. “It was learning how to finish,” he said of the most important result.

Boothe isn’t big on talking about himself. He’d rather talk about a team that returns four starters and adds two highly-regarded transfers who sat out last season, and a much-anticipated, three-man freshman class.

“I’m really excited,” Boothe said. “There are a lot more athletes, versatile athletes, and a lot of depth. They call all play with the ball or off the ball.

"They’re all mentally strong.”

They all will be told one thing. The UT offense goes through Nathan Boothe.

“Everybody will benefit from the post touches he gets,” Kowalczyk said. “He could be a big scorer because he’s stronger and has improved his skill level with his back to the basket. But just as importantly, he’s an exceptional passer and an unselfish player. He makes good decisions. He’ll get a lot of attention from defenses, so his passing skills will be huge.

“By getting the ball inside, it will open up opportunities for everybody else.”

After a dismal stretch, the Rockets have won 35 games over the last two seasons and their fans have been waiting a long time for a team with this kind of potential.

Boothe knows that at the dawn of November that’s all it is, potential.

The key, he said, will be making sure that one ball is enough for so many talented players.

“My senior year in high school our team got knocked out of the state tournament because we had some issues and didn’t play as a team,” Boothe said. “That will be our challenge, sharing the ball and staying solid as a team.”

As long as that one ball ends up in the post every now and again the Rockets could be hard to contain.

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



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