DETROIT — The last University of Toledo basketball team to begin a season 6-0 kept winning until it was 10-0.
They hit a tailspin at the end of that 1998-99 season, exiting the Mid-American Conference tournament after one game and finishing 19-9.
Fifteen years later the Rockets again sit at 6-0 after a 94-74 triumph Sunday over Florida Atlantic. Their coach plans to spend the coming days with his team guarding against slippage.
“We’re nowhere near as good as we’re capable of being,” Tod Kowalczyk said. “We’re nowhere near as good as people think we are right now. That needs to change. We need to take it up another level on the inside.”
The defense must tighten for Toledo to realize its goal of advancing to the NCAA tournament. For the third straight day at the 2K Sports Classic an opponent’s star player erupted for what Kowalczyk called “a career night.”
Slippery guard Pablo Bertone scored 29 points, rolling through a series of Rocket defenders that offered no answer to his constant movement. Bertone hit a jumper with 14 minutes left to finish a 17-6 run that cut Toledo’s lead to 56-48. The Owls (1-6) would come no closer.
Kowalczyk believes his defense is behind schedule while his offense conversely is outpacing his expectations. Both claims seem to be true after this weekend.
The latest blade to be released from Toledo’s offensive utility knife is free-throw shooting. The Rockets made their first 24 attempts from the line Sunday and finished 34 of 36, taking advantage of the NCAA’s shift to tighter officiating.
For the season, they have made more free throws (160 of 214) than their opponents have attempted (130). Kowalczyk is a proponent of the new rules for obvious reasons, as his assembly of athletic guards and posts are free to attack the basket without a defender using his hands as a deterrent.
“We have a very athletic team, a lot of guys that can drive the ball at an excellent rate,” said Justin Drummond, who was 9 for 9 from the line. “Coach preaches the way the fouls are you have to be athletic to stay in front of guys.”
Drummond finished with a season-high 23 points, including a driving three-point play for a 59-48 lead with 13:52 left. Rian Pearson had 17 points after scoring 16 and 15 in the first two games. Julius Brown and Nathan Boothe added 12 points apiece. Ten players scored.
Toledo won’t play again until Dec. 4, when Detroit comes to Savage Arena for a rematch of Saturday’s affair in which the Rockets erased a 19-point second-half deficit to win 80-78.
Practices until then will focus on stopping dribble penetration, a glaring weakness along with defending the 3-point line. Stony Brook sharpshooter Anthony Jackson diced Toledo for 36 points on Friday, and Detroit’s Juwan Howard, Jr., attacked with ease a day later for 23 points.
Opponents entered Sunday shooting 47 percent from the field, which is the total FAU reached on 30 of 63 shooting.
“We have to pay attention to scouting,” Drummond said. “Our main weakness is guys that shoot 3s. We have a hard time guarding the 3-point line. It’s something that will hurt us during the season if we don’t adjust to it.”
Kowalczyk senses his players are loafing on defense, confident they can make up deficits at the other end.
“I think we’re just getting into comfort zones and thinking we’re going to outscore people, he said. “That’s a dangerous game to play.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.
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