Red-hot Zips trying to build an NCAA at-large resume
Akron coach Keith Dambrot is already looking at the big picture. With the Zips on a hot streak with six straight victories, Dambrot is focusing on an extended run to get the Zips lined up for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. The Zips, who lost their first-round NCAA Tournament game last year to Notre Dame, don’t have history on their side.
The Mid-American Conference hasn’t placed two teams in the NCAA Tournament in 13 years. But Dambrot won’t let history stop him from looking ahead.
“I want to win the rest of the games because I think we could get an at-large bid,” he said. “No one’s talking about us, but if we win the rest of the games that would make us 24-7 and that would mean that we went 21-2 after starting 3-5 and we’d have some quality wins.”
Before the Zips start talking about at-large bids, Akron’s free throw shooting has to improve. The Zips have struggled from the free throw line in the last few games, shooting 18-of-29 at Toledo and 17-of-28 from the line against Eastern Michigan. The Zips rank 10th in the conference, shooting 66 percent from the free throw line.
“The problem is that it becomes contagious. It snowballs on you. In sports you try to avoid the snowballs,” Dambrot said.
Before Akron’s Feb. 8 contest at Western Michigan, Dambrot pointed out that several of Akron’s missed free throws came when games were out of hand in recent weeks. The Zips proved Dambrot right, connecting on 18-of-23 free throws in a 69-66 overtime win over the Broncos. Junior center Zeke Marshall, a 67.6 percent free throw shooter, came up big in the clutch by swishing a pair of free throws with 36 seconds left in overtime. Quincy Diggs nailed one of two free throws with two seconds left for the final points. Marshall shot 4-of-5 from the line, while Diggs finished 6-of-7 at the charity stripe.
The Zips (17-7, 9-1) remain in first place in the East Division, and seek to end their six-game swing against West Division teams with a sparkling 6-0 record when they host Northern Illinois on Feb. 11. The Zips shouldn’t have a problem finding motivation for the Huskies. Northern Illinois captured its third win of the season by defeating Miami-Ohio on Feb. 8. But the Huskies have defeated the Zips three times in the last four years, including an 83-74 win last year — just one of five conference wins for the Huskies.
Marshall moves up MAC ranks in blocks
–Junior C Zeke Marshall passed Ohio’s Patrick Flomo on the all-time conference career list in blocked shots against Eastern Michigan. Standing in sixth place all-time in the conference through Feb. 5, Marshall had 73 of Akron’s 100 blocked shots this season while leading the team in points (10.6 per game) and ranking second in rebounding (5.3 boards per game).
–Junior F Chauncey Gilliam exemplifies Akron’s team-first approach. Starting in 17 of Akron’s 23 games, Gilliam is not a big-time scorer, but he contributes in several ways to keep Akron’s offense running smoothly. Gilliam tossed in a season-high 13 points to lead Akron in scoring for the first time this season in a victory over Eastern Michigan on Feb. 4. Gilliam, who averages 6.3 points and 1.5 rebounds, had 11 points in Akron’s win over Toledo on Feb. 1 and added 11 points in a triumph over Central Michigan on Jan. 28. His recent production has helped the Zips overcome some sluggish periods in games. BY THE NUMBERS: 46.9 percent — The Zips’ shooting is a key reason for the team’s recent uptick. Akron raised its field-goal percentage to 46.9 percent on the season in 23 games through Feb. 5. By comparison, Akron’s opponents were shooting 40.9 percent.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “You have to win the games when you are not good in basketball. When you play 31 regular-season games, you are not going to be great every night.” — Coach Keith Dambrot, following Akron’s sluggish victory over Toledo on Feb. 1.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL THIS WEEK’S GAMES: –vs. Northern Illinois, Feb. 11 KEY MATCHUPS: Northern Illinois is headed toward another 20-loss season, but it owns a solid recent history of beating Akron. The Zips will pound the ball down low in order to take advantage of their size advantage.
STAR WATCH: Junior center Zeke Marshall can do it all on the court at times. When healthy and free from foul trouble, the 7-footer can score, rebound, block shots and pass the ball. Marshall was projected as an early second-round pick in the 2013 draft by NBADraft.net, but his stock might have risen since the start of the Mid-American Conference season. Marshall finished with 14 points, five rebounds, three blocks, two steals and one assist in Akron’s 69-66 overtime win at Western Michigan. Marshall’s big game extended his run of double-digit games to four straight, and blocked a minimum of three shots for six straight games.
FUTURES MARKET: Incoming Akron recruit Jake Kretzer is an intriguing prospect. At 6-foot-7, Kretzer must add some weight and bulk to compete in the Mid-American Conference. However, his potential and ability to play numerous positions falls into line with current Akron coach Keith Dambrot’s type of player. Kretzer recently scored 29 points and 27 points in two wins by his Waverly (Ohio) High School team.
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–Sophomore PG Alex Abreu is one player that the Zips can’t afford to lose. Abreu’s ability to run the offense and distribute the ball helps fuel Akron’s well-balanced attack. Abreu’s not known for his scoring, but he tossed in 15 points and handed out four assists and tallied four steals to key Akron to a 69-66 come-from-behind overtime win at Western Michigan on Feb. 8. Abreu hit two 3-pointers to extend his streak to five consecutive games with a 3-pointer, while scoring at least 12 points for the third time in the past five games. Meanwhile, Abreu needs five more assists to become the seventh player in school history to record two 100-assists seasons.
–Sophomore G Brian Walsh is starting to form a good chemistry with point guard Alex Abreu. Walsh started for the 17th straight game at Western Michigan, contributing 12 points, seven rebounds and hitting one 3-pointer. Walsh didn’t turn the ball over in 34 minutes, and tallied a total of two turnovers in the past five games. Walsh raised his total to 11 games without a turnover this season. For the season, Walsh has 23 turnovers in 578 minutes played.
============= BOWLING GREEN =============
Orr credits defense for winning streak
Bowling Green puts its three-game winning streak on the line in a home game against arch-rival Toledo on Feb. 11.
The Falcons got their third straight win, 61-54 at Ball State on Feb. 8. A’uston Calhoun scored 17 of his game-high 27 points in the second half and Dee Brown hit two big 3-pointers in the late going to spark the offense. Defensively, BG got stops on eight of Ball State’s last 11 possessions.
In addition to playing a rival, Bowling Green will have to contend with a Toledo team which can be explosive.
The Falcons have been playing good defense of late.
“That has been the difference in our team over the last five or six games; our defense, our zone, our slides and our coverages. We are doing a real good job of being active and covering for one another,” BG head coach Louis Orr said.
Toledo is a much improved team this season. After going 4-28 last season, the Rockets have 11 wins in 2011-12 under second-year head coach Tod Kowalczyk. Toledo is getting it done using four transfers, including three of its leading scorers.
Bowling Green will be challenged by UT’s Rian Pierson, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, who is averaging 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Pierson has been on fire of late, scoring 73 points and grabbing 36 rebounds for the Rockets in their last three games.
Pierson and Matt Smith, a 6-7 sophomore, game, followed Kowalczyk from UW-Green Bay. Dominque Buckley, a 6-2 junior, is a transfer from Iowa State and Curtis Dennis, a 6-5 junior, is a transfer from New Mexico.
The Rockets are coming off an impressive 77-73 victory over Ohio, after trailing 15-0 to start the game. Pierson, Smith and Dennis combined for 53 points in the win.
Crawford comes on strong
–After a horrible performance against Akron on Jan. 11 in Bowling Green’s second Mid-American Conference game of the season, junior G Jordon Crawford played well in the next seven games, averaging 13.3 points and 6.9 assists per game. When Crawford plays under control, he can be a major factor.
“In the second half … I was pleased that Jordon made some big shots … late shot clock, and that’s the time that we need him to be able to create great opportunities,” coach Louis Orr said after the Falcons’ 65-40 win over Northern Illinois on Feb. 4.
–Opposing teams have to design their game plans in all areas against Bowling Green senior F Scott Thomas.
Through Feb. 5, he ranked 31st on Bowling Green’s career scoring list with 1,127 points. Thomas was ninth all-time with 128 3-pointers. He was just outside of the all-time top 10 in assists with 284.
Thomas is the only player in school history to have more than 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 150 steals and 100 3-pointers in a career.
–With Bowling Green’s 72-48 win over Western Michigan on Feb. 1 and a 65-40 victory over Northern Illinois on Feb. 4, the Falcons defeated Division I opponents by 20 or more points in back-to-back games for the first time since Feb. 9, 2002 (83-60 over Marshall) and Feb. 13, 2002 (82-61 over Eastern Michigan). BY THE NUMBERS: 287 — Bowling Green’s Jordon Crawford, a 5-foot-6 junior, was 10th on the Falcons’ career list with 287 assists through Feb. 5. He was averaging 4.6 assists per game this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “We weren’t able to be productive inside-out for most of the game, but probably more so in the second half, and that’s where you’ve got to play. You have to really keep scoring.” — Coach Louis Orr, after the Falcons scored only 24 points in the second half of a 65-40 win over Northern Illinois on Feb. 4.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL THIS WEEK’S GAMES: –vs. Toledo, Feb. 11 KEY MATCHUPS: Toledo, Bowling Green’s arch-rival as the schools are less than 30 minutes apart, is a much improved team this season. After going 4-28 last season, the Rockets already have double-digit wins in 2011-12 under second-year coach Tod Kowalczyk. Toledo is getting it done using four transfers, including three of its leading scorers. Bowling Green will be challenged by Toledo’s guard play, which is led by Rian Pearson, a 6-foot-4 sophomore who was averaging 17.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game through Feb. 5. Pearson and Matt Smith, a 6-7 sophomore who was averaging 8.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, both followed Kowalczyk from UW-Green Bay.
STAR WATCH: After scoring only five points and not grabbing a rebound in Bowling Green’s 65-40 win over Northern Illinois on Feb. 4, A’uston Calhoun came to life against Ball State on Feb. 8.
Calhoun finished with 27 points, including 17 in the second half, and nine rebounds as the Falcons posted a 61-54 road win.
It’s the fifth time this season that Calhoun has scored 20 or more points in a game, and when he’s on, the 6-foot-7 redshirt junior is one of the toughest players to guard in the Mid-American Conference.
FUTURES MARKET: Freshman Chauncey Orr, the son of Bowling Green head coach Louis Orr, was averaging less than seven minutes per game this season through Feb. 5, but he gets high marks from senior Scott Thomas.
“I go against Chauncey Orr in practice every day. He pushes me. He’s going to be a great player here,” Thomas said.
Orr was a first-team All-Ohio selection his senior year at Bowling Green High School.
–Senior F Scott Thomas had four steals in Bowling Green’s 61-54 win over Ball State and he is now fourth on BG’s all-time career list with 185 steals.
Thomas is ranked in the top 10 nationally in steals, averaging 2.56 steals per game.
–Sophomore C Cam Black has blocked at least one shot in 10 straight games and has 36 blocks this season.
========== KENT STATE ==========
Flashes continue dominance of MAC West foes
Rob Senderoff is in his first season as a head coach, but he knows the keys to success in the stretch run.
“If we continue to win, we’ll be OK,” he said. “If we don’t, then we won’t be. I just know that if we keep winning, at the end, we’ll be fine.”
The Golden Flashes, who came away with a tense 62-58 road win over Eastern Michigan on Feb. 8, trail first-place Akron by two games in the Mid-American Conference East Division.
Kent State, which has won five consecutive games, hosts Ball State on Saturday in a rare 11 a.m. tip-off. It will be the final crossover game in the conference before Kent State finishes the MAC schedule with five games against Eastern Division teams.
The game is a must-win for the Golden Flashes if they want to have a chance to grab their third straight regular-season title. Ball State has lost five straight and is one of the biggest disappointments in the conference.
“We want to sweep the West to give us a chance to win the regular season,” said guard Randal Holt, whose 3-pointer with 23 seconds remaining put Kent State ahead for good Wednesday. “If we would’ve lost tonight, it would’ve been devastating for our season. It’s just great that we won the game and found a way to get it done.”
The win raised Kent State’s overall record to 17-6 and 7-3 in the league. The Golden Flashes have recorded 29 consecutive wins over West Division opponents. Kent State hasn’t lost to a West Division team since a 79-57 defeat at Western Michigan on Feb. 11, 2007.
Defense heats up
–Defense had been a major reason for Kent State’s winning streak. The Golden Flashes allowed an average of 62.5 points in the past four games through Feb. 5. Not only did they hold Western Michigan to 42.9 percent shooting, but their defensive pressure forced the Broncos into numerous mistakes. Kent State turned 18 turnovers into 22 points and held Western Michigan to two fast-break points. The Golden Flashes allowed an average of 86 points in their three games prior to the winning streak.
–Junior F Chris Evans had another big game in 28 minutes off the bench Feb. 4. He scored 18 points, including nine in overtime, with six rebounds, three steals and three blocked shots. Evans also showed the ability to cash in at the foul line, where he made 10 of 13 attempts. He had averaged 16.8 points in Kent State’s four-game winning streak through Feb. 5. Evans also had scored in double figures six times in the past seven games.
–Senior G Michael Porrini scored only five points against Western Michigan, but he had his usual solid all-around game. He had eight rebounds, five assists and four steals. Porrini also drew a charging foul with just under two minutes to play that led to Kent State tying the game on its next possession. Porrini is one of the most versatile players in the Mid-American Conference, and the Golden Flashes are at their best when he’s playing well.
BY THE NUMBERS: 9 — Kent State set a school record with nine blocked shots against Western Michigan. Justin Greene and Chris Evans had three apiece, while Justin Manns had two and Randal Holt had one. QUOTE TO NOTE: “That’s Randal for you right there. The one thing he’ll never lack is confidence. That’s the reason he made them both, and they were obviously huge 3s in big parts of the game, and we wouldn’t have won without them without a doubt.” — Kent State coach Rob Senderoff, on G Randal Holt, whose two 3-pointers late in regulation forced overtime in Kent State’s 78-73 win over Western Michigan on Feb. 4.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK’S GAMES: –vs. Ball State, Feb. 11 KEY MATCHUPS: The Cardinals are one of the biggest disappointments in the conference. Ball State features F Jarrod Jones, one of the league’s best players. Jones and Kent State’s Justin Greene should have an interesting matchup in the lane.
TRENDING: Kent State’s success over the years has been built on defense. This season the Golden Flashes are relying more on their offense. Kent State is third in the Mid-American Conference in scoring (71.7), fourth in field goal percentage (45.2), third in 3-point percentage (35.3) and second in assists (14.8). While Kent State’s defense has improved recently, offense is definitely the Golden Flashes’ strength this season. FUTURES MARKET: Senior C Justin Manns, who has spent most of the season in coach Rob Senderoff’s doghouse, equaled his career high with 10 rebounds against Western Michigan on Feb. 4. He also hit two clutch free throws late in overtime that gave Kent State a six-point lead. Manns has served two suspensions and lost his starting job in December. He’s been trying to work his way back into the rotation since. The Golden Flashes need him to play well down the stretch.
–Junior G Randal Holt had a poor shooting night against Eastern Michigan on Feb. 8, but came through when the Golden Flashes needed him. Holt hit his only 3-pointer in five attempts from deep on the left wing with 23 seconds remaining to give Kent State a 59-58 lead. The shot put the Golden Flashes ahead for good. Holt finished the game with seven points and made three of seven shots.
“At night, I dream about hitting shots like that,” Holt said. “I just shot it with confidence and knew I was going to make it. No matter if I’ve missed every shot in the game, I knew I was going to make that one.”
“When it left his hands, I thought it was good,” coach Rob Senderoff said. “Every time it leaves Randal’s hands, I think it’s good because he’s a good shooter. He’s a confident player. He just thinks he’s going to make everyone.”
–Junior F Patrick Jackson made his biggest contribution of the season in the closing seconds Wednesday. Jackson blocked Darrell Lampley’s shot with six seconds remaining and Kent State leading by one. Chris Evans was fouled after grabbing the rebound and put the game away with two free throws. Jackson is averaging 3.0 points and 2.8 rebounds this season.
–Kent State committed a season-low six turnovers against Eastern Michigan. Point guard Michael Porrini didn’t commit a turnover in 37 minutes.
============ MIAMI (OHIO) ============
Coles stays upbeat despite plenty of losses
Before the RedHawks can think about winning their next game, they’re going to have to forget what happened Feb. 8.
Unfortunately for coach Charlie Coles’ team, that might not be so easy. Miami’s two-game winning streak ended with a 62-59 loss at Northern Illinois. In a season that’s been marred by tough defeats, Wednesday’s might be the most difficult of all.
Jon Harris, who scored a career-high 15 points, banked in a 3-pointer that would have tied the game and forced overtime. The officials reviewed the shot and confirmed that it left Harris’ hands after the buzzer sounded.
So instead of having a chance to extend their winning streak to three games, Miami fell to 7-15 overall and 3-7 in the Mid-American Conference. The latest defeat makes Saturday’s home game against Central Michigan even more important. The Chippewas, who are struggling more than any team in the conference, have lost eight consecutive games.
Saturday’s game is Miami’s last chance to gain some ground playing West Division teams. Miami is 2-3 against the West. The RedHawks were 1-4 in the first round of games against the East Division with their only win coming against Buffalo. Miami plays three of its last five conference games on the road.
Coles has tried to stay upbeat even as the losses have piled up.
“What I’m trying to do is make them feel good about the basketball they’re playing and to get addicted to good ball, good, solid ball,” he said in the Oxford (Ohio) Press.
RedHawks soar past Cardinals thanks to hot shooting
–The shooting numbers were all in Miami’s favor Feb. 4 in their 59-53 win over Ball State. The RedHawks were 20-for-37 from the field and 13-for-21 in the first half. Miami also hit half of its 18 3-point attempts. The defense shut down Ball State’s shooting. The Cardinals shot 33.3 percent for the game and made seven of 27 attempts in the first half. Miami held Ball State to 3-of-21 shooting on its 3-point attempts.
–Taking care of the basketball is still a major issue for the RedHawks. Miami beat Ball State despite turning the ball over 19 times to only 10 assists. The RedHawks have been atrocious in that department all season. Miami had committed 298 turnovers and has 230 assists in 21 games through Feb. 5. Star F Julian Mavunga was the worst offender with 82 turnovers and only 64 assists.
–Freshman G Brian Sullivan came off the bench to score 18 points against Ball State. He hit four 3-pointers in six attempts. Sullivan was shooting 49.1 percent on his 3-point attempts and was averaging 10.6 points per game through Feb. 5.
BY THE NUMBERS: 8 — Points scored by Ball State star Jarrod Jones against Miami on Feb. 4. He was 3-for-12 from the field thanks to the RedHawks’ swarming defense. Jones had been averaging 15.8 points and shooting 52.5 percent from the field this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “Their first half today? It was a gem. We played our butts off.” — Miami coach Charlie Coles, in the Oxford (Ohio) Press, after his team’s 59-53 win over Ball State on Feb. 4.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL THIS WEEK’S GAMES: –vs. Central Michigan Feb. 11 KEY MATCHUPS: The reeling Chippewas took a seven-game losing streak into this week’s action. This will be another opportunity for the RedHawks to extend their winning ways. Guard Trey Zeigler, whose father Ernie coaches the team, is Central Michigan’s biggest scoring threat.
ON THE SPOT: Sophomore point guard Quinten Rollins has been on the spot most of the season. He was handed more responsibility when the backcourt was decimated by the loss of Orlando Williams (no longer in school after being arrested for burglary) and Allen Roberts (knee surgery). Rollins has had some rocky moments this season, but had a solid game against Northern Illinois. He played all 40 minutes, scoring 12 points with five assists, one turnover, one steal and five rebounds.
FUTURES MARKET: While the RedHawks were still in last place in the Mid-American Conference East Division standings through Feb. 5, Miami still had a chance to move up in the race. Miami plays all five East Division opponents again and has Kent State and Ohio at home. The RedHawks still have a chance to host a first-round game in the conference tournament.
–Sophomore F Jon Harris came up just short of being a hero on Feb. 8 at Northern Illinois, but had his best game of the season. He scored a career-high 15 points, all coming on 3-pointers, and had six rebounds in 35 minutes. Harris banked in a 3-pointer that would have tied the game, but the officials looked at the replay and ruled the shot came after the buzzer.
–Senior F Julian Mavunga got into early foul trouble against Northern Illinois and played only 29 minutes. He scored 15 points and had two rebounds. Mavunga averages 38 minutes a game.
–Sophomore C Drew McGhee, who lost his starting job two weeks ago, had a solid game off the bench Wednesday. He scored 11 points and made four of his five shots in 18 minutes.
–Freshman G Brian Sullivan had a rare poor shooting night against Northern Illinois. He was held to six points in 35 minutes. Sulllivan’s two baskets were 3-pointers, but he missed eight shots in 10 attempts. He’s shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 48.4 on 3-pointers.
==== OHIO ====
No margin for error for Bobcats after Toledo loss
The Bobcats have stubbed their toe once. A second might cripple their MAC championship hopes.
Ohio (19-5, 7-3 MAC) stumbled in a 77-73 loss at Toledo on Feb. 8 as the Rockets out-toughed the Bobcats on the glass and held off a late-game Ohio rally.
The Bobcats were handled 43-32 on the boards, and Toledo racked up 20 offensive rebounds to the tune of 17 second-chance points. The lack of interior toughness isn’t a good sign for Ohio, which now stands two full games behind MAC leader Akron (9-1 MAC).
“It was disappointing,” Ohio coach John Groce said.
Ohio fell to 4-1 against the MAC West Division with the loss and had a six-game winning streak snapped. The Bobcats need to rebound quickly — they play at Eastern Michigan on Saturday.
The Eagles, like Toledo, are improving under a first-year head coach and EMU’s style — lots of slow-down tempo and 2-3 zone — runs counter to Ohio’s strengths. If the Bobcats can’t bounce back, they’ll be left in the dust in the overall MAC hunt.
Ohio now trails both Akron and Buffalo (8-2 MAC) in the standings, and sits in a tie with Kent State (7-3) for third. None of the other teams have dropped a game during cross-divisional play.
Cooper increases his passing, decreases his shooting
–Junior PG D.J. Cooper, though he missed the final 10 minutes with a wrist injury, accomplished something new in his college career during a win over Central Michigan on Feb. 4. Cooper finished with nine points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 29 minutes.
With the nine points, it marked the first time in his college career that Cooper had not scored at least 10 points in three consecutive games. Cooper had six points vs. Ball State on Jan. 28 and just four at Northern Illinois on Feb. 1.
A big reason why his scoring had dipped of late had been a lack of opportunity. Cooper was averaging 7.3 shot attempts in the past three games through Feb. 5, but he took 12.7 shots per game through Ohio’s first 20 contests.
Cooper, shooting just 33.6 percent from the field this season, had been actively dialing back shot attempts. He had been setting up teammates more often of late, averaging 5.9 assists over the same span.
–Another Bobcat who had seen his offense dip of late was junior PF Ivo Baltic. A 6-foot-8 forward with a good mid-range game, Baltic was Ohio’s second-leading scorer much of the season, but he had just 25 total points on 17 shots in the past four games through Feb. 5.
Baltic’s touches had been limited of late, as more opponents were showing more zone defenses against Ohio. The Bobcats, in turn, had been launching more 3-pointers — 22 3-point attempts per game over the past four games. Baltic’s touches had often come in the high post area, resulting in dump-downs to the low post or kick-outs to the wing.
–Junior guard Walter Offutt had rounded into offensive form. Over his past seven games through Feb. 5, Offutt — a 6-foot-3 slasher — had scored in double figures six times, averaging 14.4 points per game while shooting 51.6 percent from the field.
Ohio’s most aggressive — and effective — driver, Offutt had been able to get more chances to get to the rim, as he’d picked up the pace on his outside jumper. Offutt had hit 12 of 23 3-pointers over the seven-game stretch, which means he was making the opposition pay for sagging off to cut off driving lanes.
The ‘Cats had needed it. Offutt had been the team’s leading scorer in its last three games through Feb. 5.
BY THE NUMBERS: 70 percent — In Ohio’s 68-42 win over Central Michigan on Feb. 4, the Bobcats hit seven of 10 shots from 3-point range in the second half. The 70 percent shooting from the arc was Ohio’s best in a half this season. The team’s 11 total 3-pointers in the game were the most for Ohio since a Jan. 18 home win over Kent State. QUOTE TO NOTE: “It’s one thing for me to say where we’re at defensively to these guys in the locker room, but when they guard like that and they’re getting some of the results they’re getting, you earn the right to be confident.” — Ohio coach John Groce, on his team’s ability to improve defensively this season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL THIS WEEK’S GAMES: –at Eastern Michigan, Feb. 11 KEY MATCHUPS: The surprising current leader in the MAC West Division through Feb. 5, the Eagles has been able to throw off conference teams with their style. EMU will play a 2-3 zone throughout — which Ohio has struggled against this season — and will take the air out of the ball by using the majority of the shot clock on each possession. The Eagles allow just 59.7 ppg and rely on 7-foot Syracuse transfer Da’Shonte Riley to guard the lane.
ON THE SPOT: Junior PF Ivo Baltic is gifted athletically, but the Bobcats need him to bring more physical play. Baltic had eight points in a Feb. 8 loss at Toledo and the contest marked the third straight game he failed to break into double figures. More than that, Ohio is getting frustrated with Baltic’s penchant for fadeaway jumpers. Baltic has been shying away from contact as he continues to struggle from the free throw line (52.4 percent).
FUTURES MARKET: PG Stevie Taylor probably won’t land on the Mid-American Conference All-Freshman team, but he’s provided just what Ohio wanted this season. With junior D.J. Cooper already entrenched as the starter at point guard, the Bobcats needed Taylor to provide depth and be good enough to make sure Cooper doesn’t have to play high minutes every night.
It’s worked. Through Feb. 5, Taylor was averaging 5.2 points and 1.2 assist per game while playing around 13 minutes per contest — both in place of and with Cooper. And while Taylor has work to do defensively, his quickness has allowed Ohio to rest Cooper more than at any other point in his college career. Cooper was averaging 31.7 minutes per game this season, a full four minutes left than during either his freshman or sophomore campaigns.
The next step for Taylor is on the defensive end. If he can consistently improve on handing opponents’ dribble penetration, he’ll be in line to see even more time.
–Junior PG D.J. Cooper had another confounding outing at Toledo on Feb. 8. Cooper finished with a team-high 18 points, had five rebounds and five assists, and scored eight straight points late to give his team a late lead. On the other hand, Cooper was just 6 of 16 from the field, missed badly on an ill-advised 3-pointer with Ohio down two with seconds left, and was charged with a turnover on Ohio’s final possession.
–Junior SG Walter Offutt saw his string of good offensive games come to a crashing halt. Offutt, averaging more than 16 points per game over his last three games, had just nine points with four turnovers at Toledo. Denied at the rim on several drives, Offutt finished 0 of 7 from the field; it was the first time this season Offutt failed to make at least two field goals in a game.
====== TOLEDO ======
Rockets continue to show progress with upset of Ohio
The Rockets shocked the Mid-American Conference by bumping off Ohio University, the team with the best overall record in the league, by a 77-73 count on Feb. 8th.
That sets up a showdown for Toledo with rival Bowling Green on the road next as the Rockets will try to steal one more win from the rugged MAC East Division teams before closing the season with a second round of games against their fellow West Division members.
Toledo, at11-13 overall and just 3-7 in the conference, is vastly improved over the last two seasons, which both ended in 4-28 records with a lot of torture and suffering along the way.
The Rockets’ 11 wins to date are the most this program has experienced since the 2007-08 Toledo team went 11-19. After going 1-15 in each of the past two conference seasons, the Rockets have already eclipsed the total number of MAC wins combined in those two seasons.
The evidence is clear that the Rockets are trending in the right direction, and the fact they were able to wipe out a 15-0 lead Ohio had built to start the game, and Toledo eventually was on top at halftime, is evidence how much this team has matured.
But their abundance of youth has still been the source of a great deal of frustration along the way, with the Rockets going just 2-6 in games this season that have been decided by three points or less.
Toledo, with the fifth least-experienced team in the nation, averages just 0.77 years of experience per player on its roster. The Rockets have no seniors, two juniors who are transfers and in their first active year in the program, six sophomores, and three freshmen. The Rockets started one junior, three sophomores and one true freshman in their win over Ohio.
Despite their youth and lack of experience playing together, the Rockets have been surprisingly efficient with the ball, averaging just 14 turnovers per game this season. In the 2010-11 campaign, when the Rockets had just seven scholarship players on the active roster, they averaged about 16 turnovers per game.
The Rockets also lead the MAC at the foul line, where they hit 73.6 percent. They rank fourth in the conference in scoring offense (71.0 ppg) and fifth in field goal accuracy at 45.3 percent.
Rockets still hot from the line
–Despite their losing record, the Rockets ranked first in the MAC in free-throw accuracy at 73.6 percent through Feb. 5, and they were fourth in scoring at 71 points per game.
–Sophomore G Rian Pearson showed he can play with the best in the MAC in the two recent losses to MAC East powers Akron and Buffalo. Pearson had 26 points and eight rebounds in the Feb. 4 home loss to the Bulls, giving him 50 points and 20 rebounds over the two-game stretch.
–Freshman PG Julius Brown had 12 points and five assists in the road loss to Akron on Feb. 1, then came back at home three days later at home in the loss to Buffalo to provide 10 points and nine assists.
BY THE NUMBERS: 12.2 — Despite coming off the bench in a support role since he became eligible at the end of the fall semester, junior G Curtis Dennis ranked second on the team at 12.2 points per game through Feb. 5. Dennis sat out the past year after transferring to Toledo from New Mexico last winter.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I don’t know what an offensive foul is in the post anymore, and obviously, neither do the three guys out working the game tonight either.” — Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk, upset over a series of calls that went against his team late in the home loss to Buffalo on Feb. 4.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL THIS WEEK’S GAMES: –at Bowling Green, Feb. 11 KEY MATCHUPS: The rivalry between these two schools, which are separated by just a 25 miles stretch of I-75, has been tempered a bit by them competing in different divisions, but things heat back up on the one day they clash each season. The Falcons lack a single, dominant player, but their success is usually linked to the performance of diminutive PG Jordon Crawford. Toledo will need to cut off Crawford’s deep drives, which often end in dunks by the Bowling Green big men. Senior F Scott Thomas is a savvy player with 3-point accuracy. When Thomas produces big stats, the Falcons usually win.
TRENDING: Despite drawing increased attention from opposing defenses around the Mid-American Conference, Toledo sophomore G Rian Pearson is on a tear as of late. Pearson had an exceptionally robust double-double with 18 points and 16 rebounds in the Rockets’ stunning 77-73 upset of MAC East power Ohio on Feb. 8. Over the past two weeks, the transfer from Wisconsin-Green Bay has averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. Pearson leads the MAC with his 17.3 points per game average and is third in rebounding at 8.0 per game. He is fifth in assists with 1.7 per game, making him the only player in the conference to rank in the top 10 in all three major statistical categories.
FUTURES MARKET: When Tod Kowalczyk took over the program prior to last season, Toledo had a laundry list of issues, one of which was the inability to play the physical inside game needed to thrive in the MAC. As he cleaned house, recruited fresh talent and collected an assortment of transfers, Kowalczyk tried to address the shortage of strength and toughness on the Rockets’ roster. Building a better team is still very much a work in progress, and for Toledo’s future to include more wins, sophomore G Rian Pearson thinks the ability to match the physical play of the opposition will be vital. “We need to get more physical,” Pearson said following the Feb. 4 loss to Buffalo in which the Rockets got beat up inside. “It’s a physical league, and we need to focus more on defensive rebounds, trying to grab them and pull them in.”
F Sophomore F Reese Holliday is the lone returning starter in the Rockets’ lineup, and after having survived the 4-28 campaign in 2010-11 and the house-cleaning that followed, he continues to be a solid contributor for the much-improved Toledo team. Holliday has started 20 of the first 24 games this season, and averages 6.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Last year he led all the first-year players in the MAC with 6.3 rebounds per game and was first in the conference overall with 2.83 offensive rebounds per game.
–G Dominique Buckley, a junior who transferred to Toledo after playing his first two seasons at Iowa State, is leading the MAC in free throw percentage at 87.9 percent and also leads the Rockets with his 41.6 percent rating from outside the 3-point arc. Buckley, a native of nearby Romulus, Mich., had back-to-back 21 point games earlier this season against UNC Wilmington and Chicago State.
–Sophomore C Richard Wonnell, a walk-on, made the first start of his career in the Feb. 4 home loss to Buffalo. The 6-foot-10 Wonnell finished with just two points, one rebound and one steal in 21 minutes of play.
–Sophomore G Rian Pearson was named the MAC’s West Division player of the week Jan. 31 after averaging 22.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in a win at Miami and a loss at Kent State. Pearson shot 54 percent from the field in the two games, and he played more than 34 minutes per game.