Jonathan Williams will not say that this Toledo team is better than last year’s squad that finished in the lower half of the MAC. He points out that it’s deeper and has been tested by a difficult non-conference schedule.
“We’ve got more pieces,” Williams said. “The guys that were freshmen last year that are sophomores now, they have bigger roles, they’re more mature. I’d say when we put all our pieces together, which we’ve been doing lately, that we’re going to be a special team.”
Williams will help determine how special, as the Rockets (7-6) open conference play against Buffalo Tuesday on ASN.
The 6-3 senior guard from Southfield, Mich., is the MAC’s No. 2 scorer (19.8 ppg) and is on a hot streak of late. In his past five games, he’s averaged 25 points and shot 53.6% from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range.
“Jon-Jon is having a great year,” Rockets coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “I think his maturity level has grown. His defense has gotten a lot better. Offensively, he’s playing with an unbelievable amount of confidence right now. That’s become contagious and infectious in the whole program.”
Williams has always been a gifted offensive player. He was third-team all-conference last season, averaging 17.6 points per game. He is just outside Toledo’s top 10 in career points (1,387), but at his current pace he has a chance to crack the top five.
Kowalczyk challenged Williams to be a better defender and to cut down on his turnovers. Though he has one more turnover than assist for the season, he’s improved in that area of late – 16 assists to just six turnovers in his past five games. His current shooting binge, he said, is largely a product of preparation and wiser decisions.
“I think I’m taking better shots,” he said. “Last year, I might have had a tendency to settle for some bad, contested 3s. This year I’m taking more shots that I know I can make. That’s helping my percentage.”
As a senior, Williams’ leadership role has expanded.
“I haven’t been much of a vocal leader in my past,” he said, “but now I’ve stepped into a role where I have to tell younger guys what to do. I’ve made mistakes and I don’t want them to make the same mistakes. I was naturally a leader by example. Leading vocally was something I had to work on. Just day in and day out in practice, my coach is staying on me to talk to my teammates, picking guys up. I think I’ve come a long way in that aspect.”
Though Williams is at the top of opponents’ scouting reports, he doesn’t have to carry the entire load. Steve Taylor Jr., a 6-7, 240-pound transfer from Marquette, averages a double-double (15.9 ppg, 11.5 rpg) and leads the Rockets in assists (46). Sophomore guard Jaelan Sanford (13 ppg) averages nearly five points more per game than last season. Jordan Lauf, Nate Navigato and Luke Knapke all score between six and eight points per game.
Toledo is third in the MAC in scoring (82 ppg) and second in field goal percentage (.476). The Rockets are plus-5 in rebounding margin and have made nearly as many free throws (243 for 346) as opponents have attempted (166 for 249).
Kowalczyk said that the Rockets’ depth permitted the staff to experiment with different rotations the first two months, which should pay dividends in the weeks ahead.
“We’ve had a tough schedule, non-conference, and I think that it’s shaped us for our conference play,” Williams said. “I think we’re right where we want to be.”
Dave Fairbank is a freelance writer based in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @FairbankOBX.