The headline gets recycled once again: The University of Toledo men’s basketball team will enter the post-Christmas part of its schedule saddled with a severe deficiency of scholarship players.
After the departures this month of AJ Mathew and Delino Dear, the Rockets are down to seven available players on scholarship — the same number they had at this time two years ago, and one fewer than last season. Teams are allowed 13 scholarships.
Constructing depth continues to elude third-year coach Tod Kowalczyk, whose team will host a regular season game today for the first time in 31 days. Tip-off at Savage Arena against Illinois-Chicago (9-3) is at 2 p.m.
How did Toledo descend to a point where only two of its bench players are on scholarship? It’s a long-winded and complicated answer, centered around unmerciful NCAA sanctions that stem from poor Academic Progress Rate scores.
Three scholarships are tied up in players sitting out the season as redshirts — transfers Justin Drummond and JD Weatherspoon, and 17-year-old freshman Aubrey Williams. All of them signed in the spring shortly after Kowalczyk learned the NCAA would reinstate the three scholarships it revoked from the program the previous year.
In an ideal scenario, Kowalczyk would have used those scholarships during the fall signing period to bring in freshmen poised to make an immediate contribution. Of the four players Kowalczyk signed in the spring, only point guard Josh Lemons has played.
"When we got those scholarships back, the logical thing to do was to take some transfers, and Aubrey was a guy we felt had a bright future and great potential being so young," Kowalczyk said.
"The right thing to do in his case was to redshirt him. I don’t regret taking Justin Drummond or JD Weatherspoon one bit. I think they’re both going to be very good players in our system and in our program."
Drummond, the sixth man of the year last season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, has impressed at practices, exhibiting the tools that lead observers to believe he could be among the top players in the Mid-American Conference next season. The 6-foot-4 import from Loyola (Md.) is capable of playing both guard positions and is a good defender.
Weatherspoon, who fulfilled a menial role at Ohio State, is unrefined but gifted athletically. Williams, who won’t turn 18 until February, scored four points and grabbed five rebounds in an exhibition win last week against Siena Heights.
"We feel we can compete with anybody that we play against with the guys we have regardless of how many scholarships we have," guard Dominique Buckley said.
None of the redshirts are expected to attend today’s game, as Kowalczyk is not requiring them to return to campus from Christmas break until Wednesday. Three other scholarships are unoccupied because of outgoing transfers.
Curtis Dennis exercised a loophole in the offseason afforded to seniors on teams banned from the postseason and transferred to Iona to play immediately. Dennis, who is averaging 4.8 points with the Gaels, did not leave until June, at which time it would have been nonsensical for Kowalczyk to use his scholarship on a mediocre prospect.
Mathew, who failed to carve out a meaningful role in a thin backcourt, presumably transferred over playing time, as did Dear, who was relegated to fourth on the depth chart at center — behind two walk-ons.
"I don’t look at it any differently than I did two weeks ago," Kowalczyk said. "We have the same amount of depth. Brendon [Schwiebert] has come in and filled in nicely [at guard], and Delino wasn’t playing at all anyway, so I don’t think it hurts our depth at all."
Schwiebert, a former practice player on the women’s team, joined the roster in the wake of Mathew’s exit and scored nine points a few days later against Siena Heights.
Another addition, former Spanish professional Angel Aparicio, will enroll at UT for the second semester and should be declared eligible within the upcoming weeks. The 6-foot-6 Aparicio will be given the scholarship vacated by Dennis, upping Toledo’s number of available scholarship players to eight.
"We just have to be smart on our practice lengths and days off," Kowalczyk said. "I think this team has the right pieces. We just have to continue to get better, particularly at the defensive end of the floor."