It is unlikely that University of Toledo fans knew how badly Keonta Howell was hurt last season or realized how many gutsy performances it took to score in double figures 17 times or to be the Rockets' leading rebounder in nine games.
But it might have been apparent when he was introduced as a starter for the Mid-American Conference championship game in Cleveland last March. He ran onto the court and his right shoulder followed a couple seconds later.
OK, that's an exaggeration. But the pain was not.
Less than a week after that game, Howell underwent surgery to repair the damage.
Now, four games into the 2006-07 season, Howell appears to have been reborn.
Heading into a game tonight in Philadelphia against Drexel, Howell is the only UT player to have scored in double figures in every game. His team-high 19.5-point scoring average is third best in the Mid-American Conference and his 6.0-rebound average also leads the Rockets.
"The shoulder injury really did limit him last season," said UT coach Stan Joplin. "He was playing on eggshells all the time. Now he's playing aggressively and has worked hard to make himself into a complete player."
Howell said he's not completely pain free, but the aggravation is nothing like a year ago when the injured shoulder affected all aspects of his game. His practice time and physical training, like weight-lifting, had to be carefully monitored.
Last season, Howell would have to leave the court for a minute or two because of pain and numbness if his arm, while extended, was driven backwards by contact while rebounding.
This year, Howell is handling the center jump, where that type of contact is normal, and asserting himself on the boards.
A year ago, in the normal progress of a game, his shoulder would tire from shot attempts and his shots would come up short late in games.
This time around, he is shooting 47 per cent from the field, has made 18 of 36 attempts from 3-point range, and is perfect in eight tries from the free throw line.
To credit all of that to shoulder surgery, though, wouldn't be fair to the 6-foot-5 senior from Jackson, Mich.
"It has been a lot of hard work," Howell said. "Even when I was recovering from the surgery I was running and working on the machines to get into shape. The minute the cast came off, I started shooting.
"I wanted to play more of a scoring role than last year (11.3 points per game) and my teammates are looking to me. I've just been able to be more aggressive and do things on instinct instead of worrying about the injury."
The Rockets are 2-2 after wins in their last two games at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"It would have been nice to go 3-0 down there, but I can live with what we accomplished," said Howell, whose team lost to Iowa before rallying from 20 points down in the second half to beat Middle Tennessee State in overtime, and then finished things off with a win over Virginia Commonwealth.
The Rockets had one day off during the tournament and Howell went snorkeling for the first time.
"I saw a stingray and I saw a shipwreck," he said. "It was cool to get out on the ocean. It was a nice trip."
But now it's back to business for Howell, Justin Ingram (19.3 points per game), and the rest of the Rockets.
Drexel, coached by the always animated Bruiser Flint, is 2-2 after an overtime loss Monday night at Rider.
The Dragons will start two players - 6-9 Frank Elegar (9.5 points, 5.3 rebounds per game) and 6-10 Chas Crawford (8.3 rebounds) - who are taller than anyone on the UT roster. Senior guard Bashir Mason is the scoring leader with a 14.8-point average.
"Defensively, Drexel might be as good a team as we've played," Joplin said. "They play good half-court pressure and really get in the passing lanes. It will be another good test, especially on the road."
That's where UT is spending the early part of its season. Tonight's 7:30 tipoff marks the fifth of seven straight road games before the Rockets play their home opener against UNC-Wilmington at Savage Hall on Dec. 16.
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