On the surface, the University of Toledo’s men at their offensive worst ran into an Eastern Michigan zone defense at its best and a 7-foot backstop at center who had one of his top outings of the season. UT’s loss Saturday was understandable.
Beneath the surface was an issue that has been smoldering, albeit without much fire, all season.
On that rare day when the offense struggles, where was the type of defensive effort that could have kept Toledo in the game? The transition game was missing, in large part because the defense didn’t create it.
Toledo has won a bevy of close games against average or even below-average opponents simply because the Rockets could out-athlete, out-run, and out-score those teams.
Rarely is the outcome based on UT out-defending anyone, give or take bearing down on a key possession here and there.
The Rockets have plenty of gaudy numbers. Entering the game at Eastern they were the 10th most prolific offense in Division I, averaging 83.3 points. They were 12th in the very important assist-turnover ratio (375-250), and 20th in turnover margin (250 to opponents’ 329). They were a top-50 team in rebounding margin, offensive rebounding, and scoring margin.
Even after the loss, ESPN’s “bracketology” had Toledo at No. 30 in the RPI rankings.
There’s not much to dislike about any of those numbers. How about this one? In scoring defense, UT ranked 281st among 345 D-I teams and worst among all Mid-American Conference teams allowing 74.6 points per game.
With a 21-4 record, the Rockets have rarely had to look up at the scoreboard and panic, and when they did find reason for a little anxiety, they’ve answered offensively or from the free throw line.
There has been little reason for them to become consistently engaged on defense. Their offensive prowess means they haven’t often had to come up with must-stops.
Their talent at one end of the floor allows them to be sloppy at the opposite end. The Rockets get beat off the dribble, are too easily fooled by fakes, allow too much penetration, and are slow to recover after helping a teammate who has been screened.
How can the same athletes, and UT is among the most athletic teams in the MAC, be so different at the two ends?
Much of it is a mindset. Offense comes naturally and is accompanied by applause. Defense is sometimes a tough sales job. And it would not be unfair, I think, to label UT’s Tod Kowalczyk as an offensive-minded coach.
It may not help that Toledo is almost always a half-court, man-to-man defensive team. There’s rarely an element of surprise. Opposing coaches can break a huddle knowing what they’re going to be facing.
Usually, what the Rockets do on offense is enough. And, truthfully, we might be overreacting to one stinker of a game in a season that has fully revived interest in UT basketball.
But — and it’s a big but — there are six games left to decide the regular-season title chase and three, including Thursday night’s rematch with Bowling Green at the Stroh Center, are against pretty gritty defensive teams.
Then there is the MAC tournament in Cleveland against Akron and Ohio and the like. Dropping 80 on those teams will be tougher at a time of year when every possession counts and the hoop tends to shrink.
Offense isn’t always going to be enough, nor as Saturday’s game in Ypsilanti showed, is it always going to be guaranteed.
Defense is the great equalizer and if the Rockets are going to get where they want to go, an inspired performance will be mandatory.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.