Deep, Athletic Squad Ready to Take Flight as Men's Hoops Holds First Practice Saturday
The Toledo men's basketball program will hold its first official practice on Saturday, Sept. 28 in preparation for its 2013-14 campaign. The Rockets return four starters from last year's squad that tied for first place in the MAC's West Division and welcome a talented recruiting class as well as transfers Justin Drummond and J.D. Weatherspoon who sat out last year. Following is a 2013-14 season preview.
Toledo’s first season under fourth-year Head Coach Tod Kowalczyk seems like an eternity ago when looking ahead to the Rockets’ 2013-14 season.
Since his hiring on March 30, 2010, Kowalczyk has transformed a UT program that was at the bottom of the Mid-American Conference to one of the favorites for the league title in what seems like the blink of an eye.
“I think we’ve come an awfully long way in three short years,” said Kowalczyk, who also rebuilt Wisconsin-Green Bay’s program in similar fashion. “We’re at the point that we feel our goal should be to strive to win a league championship. I like the direction we’re headed. I like the guys we have in the program. I think we certainly have some good young talent that can help us continue to build.”
Kowalczyk’s formula for success has relied on combining standout transfers such as two-time all-conference honoree G Rian Pearson (Green Bay) with talented recruits like 2011-12 MAC Freshman of the Year G Julius Brown and 2012-13 All-MAC Freshman Team member C Nathan Boothe.
This year, Toledo is adding two more transfers - G Justin Drummond (Loyola (MD)) and F J.D. Weatherspoon (Ohio State) - to the mix as well as a talented freshman trio of C Zach Garber, G Jordan Lauf and G Jonathan Williams.
That influx of talent will give UT its deepest squad in recent memory and allow Kowalczyk to play a more up-tempo style.
Toledo received an early start to its upcoming season with an August trip to Greece that allowed the team extra practice time and a chance to build chemistry with its revamped roster.
“Our practices leading up to our trip to Greece were great,” Kowalczyk said. “We were able to get a lot accomplished, and I think everybody involved in the program is moving forward in the right direction.
“Our players were able to bond in Greece and also received a tremendous cultural and educational experience.”
The Rockets are looking to improve on two straight winning seasons, including last year’s 15-13 mark (10-6 MAC) that resulted in a share of the MAC West Division title.
UT was unable to participate in post-season play last season though due to poor Academic Progress Rate (APR) figures from previous coaching regimes. But that’s all behind the Midnight Blue and Gold now as the scholarship and practice restrictions UT faced from the NCAA in Kowalczyk’s first three years have been lifted.
“Last year was a different type of season to go through due to not being eligible for postseason play,” Kowalczyk said. “I’m very, very proud that our guys never made excuses, and they never felt sorry for themselves.
“We’ve been severely penalized, had a lot of restraints and none of our guys made excuses about it. We’re very prideful we handled it the right way. We’re proud that we have good guys that are doing things the right way academically.”
Following is a look at the Rockets by position for the upcoming 2013-14 campaign:
Junior point guard Julius "Juice" Brown (5-10, 175) will lead a deep, athletic backcourt after earning third-team All-MAC accolades and ranking second in the conference with 6.0 apg and 11th with 13.1 ppg while playing a team-high 33.6 mpg last season.
“Juice has started every game of his career and knows what it takes to be successful,” Kowalczyk said. “He really took a big step last year in conference play and is now a very confident player who runs our offense efficiently.”
Brown has a plethora of scoring options to give the ball to on the perimeter led by senior G Rian Pearson (6-4, 190), who has been one of the MAC’s top scorers and rebounders the last two seasons. He has ranked in the top three in conference scoring the last two years with 16.4 ppg in 2011-12 and 17.9 ppg in 2012-13, respectively.
Pearson also has been equally effective on the glass with 8.3 rpg as a sophomore and 6.8 rpg as a junior.
“Rian has grown a lot as a player over the last two seasons and continues to improve all aspects of his game,” Kowalczyk said. “He’s certainly one of the top players in our conference, and he’ll have even more talent around him this season.”
Junior transfer Justin Drummond (6-4, 195) is likely to make the biggest impact for the Rockets and take some of the scoring load off Pearson. Drummond sat out last season after transferring from Loyola (MD). During his final season with the Greyhounds, he earned All-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Third Team honors and was named MAAC Sixth Player of the Year after averaging 10.7 ppg and 3.9 rpg in 33 games (four starts).
“Justin is very versatile and really knows how to score,” Kowalczyk said. “He’s is as fine of a leader that I’ve been around and adds so much value to our program in so many different ways.”
Providing additional depth in the backcourt will be sophomore Josh Lemons (6-0, 175) as well as freshmen Jordan Lauf (6-5, 195) and Jonathan Williams (6-4, 180). Sophomore Angel Aparicio (6-5, 190) was expected to provide height and another perimeter threat
Lemons served as the Rockets’ defensive specialist backup and point guard last season. A lock-up defender, the Cincinnati, OH native provides many of the intangibles that go unnoticed for a winning program.
“Josh has made strides and is a very tough-minded, defensive-oriented type of player,” Kowalczyk said. “He has so much value to our team because he’s a great screener, defender and many of the little things that don’t show up in a box score.”
Lauf and Williams are both talented newcomers who are expected to battle for spots in the Rockets’ rotation.
A third-team Associated Press Division II all-state honoree, Lauf averaged 21.6 ppg and 9.4 rpg as a senior at Napoleon High School and already possesses strong defensive skills needed to make the transition to college.
“Jordan is every bit the competitor and tough guy we thought he would be when we recruited him,” Kowalczyk said. “He’s a smart player who can knock down shots from the perimeter or go inside.”
Williams was ranked the No. 15 player in Michigan by ESPN and finished as Southfield-Lathrup’s all-time leading scorer (1,785 point). An all-state selection as a junior and senior, Williams averaged 32.0 ppg and 8.0 rpg last season and 27.0 ppg and 6.0 rpg in 2011-12.
“Jonathan is an extremely explosive, athletic scoring guard,” Kowalczyk said. “He is starting to find his niche with us, and he could really give us some offensive punch off the bench.”
After having limited depth on the front line his first three years on the Rocket sidelines, Kowalczyk will have plenty of options to choose from in the 2013-14 campaign.
Sophomore C Nathan Boothe (6-9, 240) gives the Rockets a legitimate scoring threat as well a defensive presence in the post. A MAC All-Freshman Team honoree, Boothe averaged 8.3 ppg and 5.2 rpg and ranked sixth in the league with 1.5 bpg.
“Nathan came in and was our starting center right from the first practice last year,” Kowalczyk said. “He’s taken his game up another level on both ends of the court and is playing very confidently right now. I’m very excited about what the future holds for him.”
Slated to compete with Boothe for minutes in the post is freshman C Zach Garber (6-10, 235). A four-sport performer at Vanlue High School, Garber was named Associated Press Division IV Co-Player of the Year and first-team All-Ohio after averaing 23.0 ppg, 12.1 rpg and 3.4 bpg.
“Zach brings us a big, physical inside presence,” Kowalczyk said. “It’s been fun watching him and Nate (Boothe) play against each other, and that’s only going to make both of them better.”
A trio of Rockets will contend for playing time at power forward with senior Matt Smith (6-7, 220) being challenged by junior transfer J.D. Weatherspoon (6-6, 215) and Aubrey Williams (6-7, 240).
Smith possesses a solid inside-outside game and has developed into one of the top perimeter shooting big men in the MAC. He registered 9.8 ppg and 3.6 rpg last season and paced the conference with a 44.4 3PTFG% (36-of-81) and ranked third with an 83.1 FT% (59-of-71).
“Matt has worked very hard to become a good shooter,” Kowalczyk said. “We’ve really been short on depth in the frontcourt the last two seasons, and I think it’s going to be good for him to play harder for shorter stretches and not have to worry about getting into foul trouble.”
Weatherspoon joined the Rocket program a year ago after averaging 3.0 ppg and 1.1 rpg in 25 contests as a sophomore for Ohio State. He’s expected to provide UT an inside presence but also has the ability to knock down shots from the perimeter.
“J.D. is starting to grasp our system and is one of the most athletic players I’ve ever coached,” Kowalczyk said. “He’s a forward that plays above the rim and is a very good rebounder at both ends of the floor.”
Williams sat out the 2012-13 campaign as a redshirt. He just turned 18 last February and averaged 17.0 ppg and 11.0 rpg at the IMG Academy (FL) before joining the Rockets.
“Aubrey’s a very versatile power forward who can score in a variety of ways,” Kowalczyk said. “He really understands the game and worked to improve his body a lot during his redshirt season.”