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Published: Monday, 1/4/2010

Alabama pressure challenges Rockets

BY ZACH SILKA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Losers of three straight with a 3-10 record and no seniors on their roster, this may not be the best time, or even season, for the University of Toledo to host a marquee matchup with a Southeastern Conference opponent.

Alabama (9-4), victorious in six of its last eight, comes to town for a 7 p.m. game tonight at Savage Arena in the Rockets' final tune-up before the start of Mid-American Conference play this weekend.

The Crimson Tide have yet to play a true road game this season under first-year coach Anthony Grant, with four neutral site contests under its belt. Alabama is 2-2 in those matchups, with both losses coming against ranked opponents.

UT hasn't won since edging Indiana State 73-72 at Savage Arena on Dec. 10, and has yet to find much success at home, on the road, and pretty much everywhere in between.

“We're going to prepare for this like it's any other game, just against another quality opponent,” UT coach Gene Cross said. “Our guys know it's Alabama, but I don't think we've even really approached it like that. We've approached it like we're getting ready for a MAC game.”

The Rockets will be hosting an SEC opponent for only the third time in school history, with the previous two meetings ending in losses to Vanderbilt and Mississippi during the 2007-08 and 1976-77 seasons, respectively.

UT is 4-17 all-time against current SEC members.

“I'd definitely like to see all of our fans come out and support us,” said freshman guard and co-captain Jake Barnett, who leads the Rockets with 14.1 points per game and also ranks in the top 12 in six different statistical categories in the MAC.

“I know it's Christmas break right now, so a lot of our students are at home. But hopefully we can get as many people as we can out here and fill up the house. It's always more fun for us when we have the energy of the crowd behind us, especially in a game like this.”

The young Rockets have had to fight tooth and nail for every accomplishment they've achieved this season, but the results have been somewhat easier to come by at home.

UT is 3-3 at Savage Arena, including back-to-back victories over Rochester College and Maryland-Baltimore County in the first week of December.

The Rockets will face a much stiffer test tonight, however.

“Anytime that you have a quality opponent, it presents a challenge,” Cross said. “But when you have a team that's athletic and well-coached and pressures you and does things that make you uncomfortable, it presents a different kind of challenge. We're working against six, seven, or eight guys against our five [starters] in practice to simulate what we'll be up against with their pressure.”

In its last two victories over Tennessee State and Mercer, the Crimson Tide scored an average of 23 points per game off turnovers.

Cross said how well his team handles Alabama's full-court press will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game.

In a 66-52 loss at Illinois-Chicago last Tuesday, the Rockets were overwhelmed by the Flames' defensive pressure, committing nine turnovers in the final 20 minutes, and allowed them to break open the game with a 14-0 run to start the second half.

Said Cross: “It's going to be important for us, especially after not handling UIC's pressure very well, to step up and find people that are going to be able to make plays and handle [Alabama's] pressure.”

Contact Zach Silka at:zsilka@theblade.com.



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