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Published: Saturday, 11/9/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Defense still a question as UT begins new season

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Toledo’s J.D. Weatherspoon, right, has played his way into a starting forward position for the Rockets this season. Toledo’s J.D. Weatherspoon, right, has played his way into a starting forward position for the Rockets this season.
BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge

Five players who averaged eight points or more in their most recent college basketball season will be in uniform today when the University of Toledo opens its 99th season of men’s basketball.

In other words, Tod Kowalczyk’s fourth team at Toledo should have little trouble filling the hoop in this season of outsized expectations.

Can the Rockets make stops at the other end? That question came to the forefront after Sunday’s breezy defensive showing in an overtime exhibition win over Division II Hillsdale.

No one has ever accused Kowalczyk’s teams at Toledo of playing suffocating defense. Mid-American Conference rankings show mediocre marks over the past three seasons — no better than fifth in field goal percentage, no better than eighth in points allowed.

Armed with a deeper bench than any of his previous teams, Kowalczyk said Friday, on the eve of the opener, “My tolerance for defensive mistakes should be and will be a lot less this year.”

NAIA member Northwestern Ohio will be Toledo’s first opponent in a season that which the Rockets have been looking forward to since Kowalczyk’s arrival. Game time is 7 p.m. Kowalczyk on Friday dropped two pieces of news. J.D. Weatherspoon outperformed two-year starter Matt Smith at practice the past two weeks and will start at power forward. Also, Angel Aparicio, who tore the ACL in his knee this summer, will play this season. Kowalczyk said he hopes to see the Spaniard make his Toledo debut around the new year.

Aparicio will give the Rockets 12 abled bodies, enough to both spell a tired defender and punish those unwilling to commit to the defensive end. Smith and Aubrey Williams didn’t play much in the second half of Sunday’s exhibition after they couldn’t figure out how to stay in front of Hillsdale’s Tim Dezelski (29 points, eight 3-pointers).

“We need more sense of urgency on the defensive end and to take pride in our defense,” said Rian Pearson, who succeeded at the end of the game denying Dezelski quality touches. “We don’t seem to take pride in our defense if someone scores on us.”

Kowalczyk is sensing a shift in that philsophy, believing some players are now “thinking the game defensively and not offensively.” Pearson is one of them, he said, as is center Nathan Boothe. Point guard Julius Brown is adapting, and his back up, defensive specialist Josh Lemons, is already there.

Asked if freshman forward Jordan Lauf is a good defender, Kowalczyk paused and said the Napoleon product is a “capable” defender. The implication is Lauf has strides to make but the talent to make them. Same goes for shooting guard Justin Drummond.

“When you have a team that has seven new guys there’s always a growth process,” Kowalczyk said. “Offensively, I think we’re probably a little further along than I thought we’d be. Defensively, we’re probably a little further behind than I thought we’d be.”

A year ago en route to finishing tied for first in the Mid-American Conference West division, the Rockets allowed the 10th most points in the league at 68.2. Those numbers were slightly better — seventh, 67.4 — in conference-only games. Denying dribble penetration was the biggest issue, Kowalczyk said.

“When we get tired we need to bring more energy instead of letting plays go and letting communication go,” Pearson said.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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