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Nathan Boothe’s initiation to college basketball will be accompanied by vast challenges.
He will start at center, arguably the most demanding position for a freshman to excel, when the University of Toledo begins its regular season today at Loyola. If that scenario is not enough to trigger a bout of anxiety, consider Boothe’s assignment and where he will be doing it.
Hailing from Gurnee, Ill., located about 50 minutes from Loyola in northern Chicago, Boothe will perform in front of friends and family as he jousts with one of the premier interior players in the Horizon League.
Feel sorry for the kid? Don’t. His teammates and coaches think Boothe will be a good one. Not once he matures, not by January or February, but now.
"I think he has a really good chance of being freshman of the year," said point guard Julius Brown, who earned that distinction last year in the Mid-American Conference.
No position the past two seasons has provided as feeble production for the Rockets as the one Boothe will man.
Delino Dear was relegated to the bench for a chunk of last season, and Richard Wonnell, a fan favorite for his energy and effort, has not proven to be a legitimate offensive presence. Bringing in a credible big man was imperative, and Boothe’s coaches like him more now than when they signed him.
Down about 40 pounds from this time a year ago, the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Boothe is what coach Tod Kowalczyk calls "the perfect center for our system." Which is to say, Boothe is adept at setting screens, he passes well out of the low block, and he even can convert from long range, which he did once in an exhibition against Northwestern Ohio. Boothe missed his first two shots in that 75-52 win but came back to lead the team with 15 points in 19 minutes.
Kowalczyk expects his precocious newcomer to log 30 minutes per contest, leaving scant time to be dispersed to Dear, Wonnell, and junior walk-on James Ewing.
"Since I’ve been here our biggest weakness has been our post position," Kowalczyk said. "We’ve not been very good at our center position and that needed to change. Guys needed to get better and our recruiting needed to get better in that area. Certainly our recruiting has gotten a lot better in that area."
Kowalczyk added of Boothe, "He’s not only capable of starting, I think he’s a very good player right now."
Boothe, who started in the team’s first practice, averaged 14.4 points on 58 percent shooting in his senior season at Warren Township while contributing 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots. Loyola recruited him but did not extend a scholarship offer.
His first test will be a formidable one, squaring off against second-team All Horizon League selection Ben Averkamp. The 6-8 senior lit up the Rockets last year for a career-high 31 points in a win at Savage Arena.
"I’m excited," Boothe said. "Looking forward to it. It’s back home, so there’s going to be family there."
Boothe admitted to his goal of being crowned freshman of the year, noting he must improve his touch around the basket as well as rebound better. He shouldn’t expect to hear motivational speeches from the reigning freshman of the year, who doesn’t sense Boothe needs any inspiration.
"You don’t have to encourage him much," Brown said. "He’s very talented and very confident, so I think he will be all right."
WILLIAMS TO REDSHIRT: The team’s other freshman big man, Aubrey Williams, will redshirt. Williams, who won’t turn 18 until February, is stuck between two positions — power forward and center — and will use the development year to hone his skills and better his frame.
"It gives us a year to work on his body and a year to work on his perimeter skills," Kowalczyk said. "We’re extremely high on Aubrey."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.