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Published: Friday, 1/17/2014 - Updated: 6 months ago

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Zips’ style a contrast for Rockets

Class of MAC prepared for upstart UT program

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
University of Toledo guard Julius Brown (20) hits the game winning shot against Buffalo forward Xavier Ford (35) during a basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, at Savage Arena in Toledo. UT defeated Buffalo 67-65. University of Toledo guard Julius Brown (20) hits the game winning shot against Buffalo forward Xavier Ford (35) during a basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, at Savage Arena in Toledo. UT defeated Buffalo 67-65.
BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

The turf war between the old and new forces in Mid-American Conference men’s basketball features a clash in styles.

The new guys are led by their point guard, a 5-foot-10 floor general whose obligation to his team alternates between setting the table for his teammates and, as recent events showed, shouldering the scoring onus.

The old guys don’t have much of a point guard, at least in the traditional sense, and instead rely on a committee of ball-handlers to defend the program’s perch at the top of the league.

The new guys are slick and fast, the old guys sturdy and strong. The old guys have participated in these high-stakes tussles before. The new guys are getting acclimated.

This meeting of contrasts will go down Saturday morning in Akron, and Zips coach Keith Dambrot is hoping to bully the upstart University of Toledo Rockets.

The early start time — 11 a.m., as dictated by ESPNU — gives neither side the edge as both teams conduct practices in the morning.

“Unless we play physical, we can’t beat anybody,” Dambrot said. “That’s what we feel is our competitive advantage in our league. We’re big and strong. We’re not very finesse.”

Dambrot, whose program has flexed its way to 20-plus wins in eight seasons and counting, is concerned with a Toledo offense scoring almost nine more points per game than anyone in the MAC.

“We can’t beat them in a battle of who can pass the ball better, who can shoot the ball better. We’re not going to beat them if the game becomes that,” he said.

It is anyone’s guess how the MAC standings will unravel by the end of the season, thus the importance of every outcome between title hopefuls intensifies, be it Akron’s double-overtime win at Ohio last weekend or Toledo’s buzzer-beating effort Wednesday over Buffalo.

Of the MAC’s 12 teams, six or seven have a realistic chance of contending for a division title. Akron, the preseason pick in the East, has lapped the rest of the league, appearing in seven straight tournament title games — the longest streak in MAC history. West pick Toledo, a laughingstock as recently as a few years back, is one victory shy of matching the 15 wins the program secured in a dreadful three-year period from 2008-10. UT (14-2, 2-1) shares the West lead with Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan.

“We’ve earned the right to be on these stages and now we have to come out and play,” Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said.

The area where Toledo holds the greatest edge is point guard. Akron dismissed its starter in July, cutting ties with Alex Abreu after Abreu violated probation stemming from a conviction on felony drug trafficking.

In his place, Dambrot has rolled out junior-college import Nyles Evans, who has contributed little in MAC games, shooting 1 of 13 from the field with seven assists and two turnovers, and sophomore Carmelo Betancourt, who likewise has only one made basket in Akron’s 3-0 league start.

At times abandoning a traditional configuration, Dambrot is experimenting at the point with former MAC sixth man of the year Quincy Diggs, a 6-6 forward. Diggs, who was suspended last season for breaking university rules, averages 2.7 assists and 3.4 turnovers.

“We feel like we’re going to get better at that position,” Dambrot said. “We’ve been a little spoiled. We had one of the best point guards in this league. We lost him a year prematurely, which has hurt us a little bit. In the long run we’ll be OK.”

The biggest question concerning UT’s point guard is where Julius Brown will rank among Rocket lore when his career ends. He enhanced his candidacy Wednesday, draining an 18-footer as time expired in an exasperating 67-65 win. The play, which started with 2.4 seconds left on Matt Smith’s baseline out-of-bounds pass 70 feet down the court to Nathan Boothe, ranked No. 8 on ESPN’s “Plays of the Day.”

Brown caught a laser from Boothe, glided to the right elbow, and hit home his 20th point of the night. Earlier in the half, he reached the 1,000-point barrier. It is not his scoring, but his MAC-best 7.3 assists per game, that represents the greatest difference in Saturday’s match up.

“We’re a better transition team,” Brown said. “They’re a little tougher team, if you ask me, as far as rebounding and things like that.”

MILLER MEMORIAL: A memorial service for former Rocket basketball great Dick Miller, who passed away last week at the age of 55, will be held on Saturday at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Maumee. A luncheon will follow the 10 a.m. service.

Miller, a member of the university’s Varsity T Hall of Fame, was a first-team All-MAC and Academic All-America selection as a senior in 1979-80.

He helped lead the Rockets to back-to-back MAC championships and NCAA tournament appearances in 1978-79 and 1979-80. Miller ranks third all-time in UT history with 885 rebounds.

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



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