Toledo gets defensive in quest for first NCAA Tournament appearance in 35 years

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Julius Brown (AP Photo)

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Toledo won a school-record 27 games last season, but ultimately, that high number pales in comparison to another number that looms large over the local community: 35.

It’s been 35 years since the Rockets have played in the NCAA Tournament, and while a 27-7 season is a great year for nearly any college basketball program, it still came up short of the Big Dance.

“We use that as motivation here,” senior point guard Julius Brown said to NBCSports.com. “We feel like the community deserves a team can go to the NCAA tournament.”

Although Toledo started the 2013-14 campaign with a 12-0 record, and made an NIT appearance, expectations will be even higher this season as the Rockets return four starters and numerous other contributors to last season’s high-powered offense.

The target is now squarely on the Rockets and the team has seemed to embrace the new attention that comes with being an offseason favorite. “We feel like we have a bigger target on our back, but then again, that’s what we wanted,” Brown said.

But if Toledo wants to make it to March Madness, they’ll have to fix things on the defensive end.

The Rockets were 21st in the nation in points per game average last year at 79.8 points a game, but they also allowed opponents to shoot 46 percent from the field last season, which was next to last in the MAC. The potent offensive attack worked for most games and resulted in many wins, but Toledo started and ended the MAC season in the same way in 2013-14: with a loss to MAC West Division rival Western Michigan.

Toledo trailed by two points at halftime of the MAC conference tournament championship game in March before allowing 56 second-half points in a blowout 98-77 loss to the Broncos.

“Our guys were so comfortable on the offensive end last year that we thought we could just outscore people,” Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Our defense wasn’t necessarily bad, just inconsistent. We can’t be that inconsistent this year.”

MORE: MAC Preview: Toledo once again the MAC favorite

So the focus for the Rockets this offseason has been becoming more consistent on the defensive end of the floor.

Toledo can count on scoring the ball like they did last season. Julius Brown returns as an all-league point guard after averaging 14.9 points and a MAC-leading 6 assists per game and he’s joined in the starting lineup by fellow senior guard Justin Drummond (14.2 ppg), senior forward J.D. Weatherspoon (10.6 ppg) and junior center Nathan Boothe (9.2 ppg). The Rockets also have one of the league’s top freshmen from last season returning in Jonathan Williams and Kowalczyk is also high on others stepping up and providing production when counted on.

“This is a team that I believe has continued to get better and I’m hoping we can take another step this year,” Kowalczyk said. “We’re a deeper team, we’re more athletic and we’re more skilled than we were a year ago.”

A deeper and more athletic team sounds like it could be better on the defensive end for Toledo, but to be safe, this summer for the Rockets has been geared towards getting stops. Brown said that the team hasn’t added many new wrinkles with the offensive system, but he’s definitely seen the change on the defensive end.

“Right now, I’d have to say the main focus is defense,” Brown said. “We know we lacked a focus there a bit last season and we want to get better there. I think the type of guys that we have, there’s guys that can do a lot of different things. We have a lot of versatile pieces.”

Kowalczyk knows that his team can also put up points and score with any team in the country, but he’s also counting on his senior point guard to help make a difference at both ends of the floor. With the kind of work ethic and confidence that Brown displays, it’s grown on the rest of the group and Kowalczyk expects a big senior season from his star point guard.

“He’s been an absolute joy to coach and to work with,” Kowalczyk said of his senior point guard. “I just really have enjoyed his progress about how he’s grown and matured. He’s really a guy that loves the game, works at it and studies the game. I think he’s ready to finish his career and have a great senior year.”

Brown’s confidence level is “contagious,” according to Kowalczyk and the Rockets will have to be confident to get through a very tough MAC and a non-conference schedule that includes trips to VCU, Oregon and Duke. Offense will still be a big part of how Toledo ultimately succeeds this season, but they’ve learned some lessons about maintaining focus on the defensive end of the floor and hope that a balance between the two will lead them to postseason glory. Brown is just hoping to take his senior season with a more focused approach to avoid any letdowns like the second half against Western Michigan last season.

“One of our goals is to win another MAC Championship but we also want to make it to the NCAA Tournament,” Brown said. “But we need to take it one game at a time so we don’t look so far ahead.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.