Coach Cross comes across as a very personable, intelligent, and disciplined man. His philosophy for this team is to build it into a cohesive unit and thereby build the program. "It's relative to hard work, altruism, and understanding is about the team and not yourself, and a toughness, making sure you handle your business the right way every single day. If we can establish that as a culture in our program, then moving forward we're not just going to have a good team, we'll have a good program from year to year to year."
Cross talked a little about his new recruits and joked that "Lou Henson used to say ‘the best thing about a freshman is that he becomes a sophomore', but I'll tell you, to plug a hole like we plugged up there (talking about his 2 new point guards), is pretty significant. They're still learning, but ultimately their responsibility is to make sure we get into our offense, take care of the basketball, and understand time to score, the tempo of the game, and be my coach on the floor. And those guys are learning. They're learning on the job of course, but they're holding their own. And we'll throw some older guys in there too, so we'll be a ‘point guard by committee', but we will have a primary down the floor that's our ball handler, making sure that he's the gatekeeper of the basketball."
Addressing the lack of an consistent outside jump shot on the team the last few years, Coach talked a little about Tyrone Kent playing point last year, and his move back to his natural 2 guard spot this season. "Tyrone is best off the basketball, and I think the way we'll play is going to allow him, give him scoring opportunities that he would have had to create on his own last year. He'll be able to create as well, but he'll be able to create a play not just for himself, but someone else as well with the way we're going to play. I think he has a really good basketball feel, his body type, his demeanor, is perfect for how we'll play offensively."
Inside, "one of the biggest surprises…is Ian Salter, a 6'10" kid out of California. He brings a certain level of energy and skill. He can step out and hit the 15-18 footer, he can rebound, and he's got some toughness inside. Another newcomer people may recognize from the name is Terrance Tubbs who's given us a level of toughness inside that we absolutely need. He has a perfect MAC body for a 4 man, or even if we go small, we might play him as a 5 man, so to speak, and utilize our quickness and our toughness with some of our older guys."
I asked Coach Cross to tell me a little about the difference between the motion offense he intends to run and what Toledo has run in the past. Was it mostly a difference of passing the ball more rather than dribble penetration, or was there more to it? "It's passing, it's handling the basketball, it's reading, it's spacing, it's knowing how each other plays. It's freedom, but it's not alley ball. As long as everyone understands that there's a certain way to play, for instance, if there's 2 guys covering you, if you drive a gap and somebody helps, there's another pass to be made, and if somebody goes after him, there's another pass to be made. Whether it's changing sides when you forward the ball, ball reversals, throwing the ball into the post as a pressure relief or to flatten out the defense, whatever it is, we've been teaching that to them since we started and it takes time for them to understand certain concepts. But with more repetitions, we'll get better and better and better. So I'm looking forward to the evolution of our offense right now."
We talked a little about the challenges of Coach's very short first recruiting season. "It's trying to get young people to understand that something is new. Getting the Toledo name out there. The only challenges are the typical recruiting challenges, that you're going up against other really good schools (naming a half dozen or more, including tourney regular Kent State). That lets you know you're on the right track. And you're going to lose some of those battles. The recruiting has been great in that the kids love to see the new Savage Arena. It's going to be a great recruiting tool for us, especially when you get in it, and really see it. It's more than a building with scaffolding and nuts and bolts. They can see the scoreboard light up, or see the new locker room, see the tvs on the wall, see the names on the lockers. That's been great for us, it's helped us, and it's going to help us even more in the future. I'm really really looking forward to it. It's tremendous. It's the best, it's going to be the best facility in the MAC. It's going to be a great arena. I'm hoping that our students really come out and support this team. The community has been terrific also. I hope they come out and support this team. They've been working really hard. But this arena is something this university deserves, it's something this city deserves."
As for expectations for the coming season, Coach said his "expectations are for us to come out every night and be competitive and play hard every single night. If we can play basketball the right way, defensively and offensively, and play hard every single possession, we'll give ourselves an opportunity to be competitive. And not just be competitive, but to win. But it's gonna take a lot of work, it's gonna take time, and people need to understand where we're coming from and where we need to go. But our eyes are on a specific goal, and it's a matter of what we're doing to get there. We're going to try to put our guys in a position to make them be successful every single day in practice so they learn from it. And as they learn from it, it starts to become part of their core, of their core beliefs as players, and then, if you can build that in them, and you've got pretty solid kids, you can execute what your plan is. This place is so deserving of a program they can be proud of, these people are so deserving of a program they can get behind and cheer for every single night, that's what I'm looking to do. We have smart basketball fans and they understand what a good team is. And not just about wins and losses, but they understand what being a unit is about. And that's what I'm looking for. The wins will come (at least I hope they will), but as long as people understand that we're trying to do things the right way, with good players, with good citizens, with good students, that's the idea. Get good students, get good citizens, get good players, and you build it up."
We talked some about the outside shooting, and Johnson says they been doing a lot of shooting in practice, and "I'm sure that's going to pay off as well. And there's a new line too, so we're going to try to bring the old percentage and bring it up a little too." Regarding the motion offense, Ridley tells me the players a starting to get ahold of it. [Coach Cross] structures it, he stops it, breaks down a practice, makes sure we understand why, what's the reason for stopping it, what's a good shot, what's a bad shot." Regarding Savage, Ridley says it doesn't even look like the same arena. He talked a little too about the upcoming schedule, including "Florida, Xavier…we're ready for the challenge. We're gonna make the best of it. Like I said, we've been working really hard and we feel this is our gift for working so hard." As for the new players, Johnson says they're good guys, they help us a lot. And with some size down low, "it definitely helps. When people go down low, they have to change their shot up a little bit and Justin, he's doing pretty good. He's blocked a few shots."
The Rockets have an exhibition game at Owens Community College on November 9 (7pm game time), and open their season at Florida in Gainesville on November 14. Their home schedule tips off with Massachusetts on Wednesday December 3 at 7pm in the totally renovated Savage Arena on Bob Nichols Court. I would recommend getting tickets early, as this is likely to be a sellout (and a darn good game).