Gene Cross has no shortage of obstacles in his first year as University of Toledo men's basketball coach.
Cross will begin the season tomorrow without an experienced point guard or big man.
The Rockets will be on the road for the first three weeks of the season while Savage Arena has its finishing touches put on. A difficult nonconference schedule promises to give UT plenty of fits.
The one ace in Cross' pocket is a stable of seniors. Jonathan Amos, Anthony Byrd, Ridley Johnson and Tyrone Kent are all returning starters for the Rockets. They give Cross some peace of mind that he has several go-to players in crunch time, starting when UT plays at No. 19 Florida tomorrow night.
"I think they really understand and grasp the change in culture that I expect," Cross said. "I lean on them for leadership on and off the court. I lean on them for points and rebounds, for everything right now. They realize their importance and how much I count on them."
The seniors will have to play well if the Rockets want to improve on last year's 11-19 record and fourth-place finish in the Mid-American Conference West division. UT was picked to finish fourth in the West again this year by the MAC News Media Association.
The experienced foursome started every game during the MAC season last year and all were named captains last month. This year Cross hopes to put the seniors in better situations to succeed by moving them around on the court.
Kent will move off the ball after subbing as point guard last year. Byrd, a walk-on, showed enough ball-handling skills in the preseason to win the battle for UT's starting point guard. Amos will play more at small forward and Johnson initially will be used as a spark off the bench.
Kent wants to make the most of his return to the wing a year after leading the MAC in scoring with 16.9 points per game.
"I've been working on all parts of the game," Kent said. "I've mainly been trying to take better shots.
"I'm looking forward to being a leader on the court. We're ready to play."
For the seniors to excel in their tweaked roles, they know they'll have to have help from the freshmen. UT has seven first-year players, at least three who will get significant playing time.
"From previous years we've always had good senior leadership," Byrd said. "We kind of fell in line. So we're trying to show the young folks the ropes. You have to show patience. It's going to be a slow process but hopefully it happens sooner than later."
Freshman forwards Ian Salter and Terrance Tubbs are two newbies who Cross will rely on this year for production. Sophomore forward Justin Anyijong has gained confidence playing in Cross' motion offense and will have an impact inside and out.
Of course, there's another rookie in this equation, too - after 12 years as an assistant, Cross moves over to the next seat on the bench. He has spent the last six months putting his mark on the program and with the help of his assistants, is ready to put it to the test.
"As an assistant it's one thing, but as a head coach I'm making the calls," Cross said. "I have good assistants who have been around the block and have helped make me better as a head coach."
The year doesn't start out easily for the Rockets. Seven of UT's nonconference opponents won at least 21 games last year, including the Gators and Elite Eight participant Xavier. UT opens up the new Savage Arena on Dec. 3 against Massachusetts, which advanced to the NIT final game last season.
MAC play begins Jan. 10 at Northern Illinois.
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