Once upon a time, in a land far far away–perhaps eight years ago yesterday, in the Virgin Islands–a mid major basketball program weaned on success and hungry to make a statement on the national scene was set to play a program on the rise and in that national discourse, a bucketful of years ahead of that mid major program.
It was early season, that nonconference time of year when a cornucopia of upsets were redlined in March meeting rooms. The Big O, opportunity, hung heavy in the Caribbean humidity.
The fans of that mid major program knew what they had–a great, game-changing guard and enough talent surrounding him to make a difference if given the chance. They all expected to win, but they were in the minority. Fans of the already-established program didn’t pay the mid major much mind, and the national media noted it would be more of a test than people thought, but never truly believed the mid major would win.
And that’s exactly how it ended: Xavier 70, VCU 67. BA Walker had 21 points that day, and VCU had the ball in its hands with a chance to take the lead inside the final 30 seconds. It was a good fight–more than the big boys thought but less than the mid major thought.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere, and I’m not drawing a straight line between VCU in 2006 and Toledo in 2014. However if you think Toledo is going to roll over just because we are VCU and playing at home, you are mistaken.
Toledo is experienced and tough–the Rockets were 9-0 last year in games decided by four or fewer points. In terms of numbers, the Rockets return 76.8% of their points, 80.2% of their rebounds, 87.0% of their assists, 71.9% of its steals and 90.0% of their blocks from last season’s 27-7 campaign. Ted Kowalczyk, no relation to Chris, is a very good coach.
The difference in this year and last year’s nonconference schedule: teams like Toledo aren’t afraid. They know how to win, and know how to win on the road. The Rockets are 11-7 in their past 18 road games and start two seniors and two juniors. A team like Illinois State is not coming into That Animal and winning. Toledo? The Rockets have a puncher’s chance.
It starts with Juice Brown, a jet-quick and effective scoring point guard. Brown had 10 points and eight assists against Northern Arizona in Toledo’s opening 71-58 win. Brown is the kind of player that filters everything. Smart and the staff have a goal every game of holding the opposition’s best player under his average–that is at a premium tonight.
Mo Alie Cox will have his hands full. Nathan Boothe goes 6-10, 250 pounds and put up a 19/6 against NAU. JD Weatherspoon (no relation to Clarence that we know), is an Ohio State transfer who averaged 10.6 ppg and was 10th in the MAC with a team-best 6.6 rpg last year.
Finally, Toledo has its own Jonathan Williams. He had nine points and nine assists in their opening game and earned All MAC freshman team honors last year.
The key to winning tonight is walking the fine line of doing what we do and attacking, but not over-attacking. By over-attacking, VCU opens itself up to a bazillion fouls, poor traps, and getting out of position. All of those lead to easy points for the opposition.
The other side holds true: it has to be a game where we hit singles and doubles all night long–pepper away at Toledo’s execution, and it’s heart. Offensive rebounds, forcing bad passes–those types of dispiriting plays will win the battle. Swinging for fence hurts us (see the prior paragraph) and helps them.
Toledo likes to push pace, but I like Ken Pomeroy’s number: an 86-71 VCU win.
See you this evening.