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.”