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Oct. 6—It wasn't difficult to see with one's own eyes where the deficiency lied with the 2020-21 Toledo women's basketball team.
The coaches were the tallest people on the bench.
Not anymore. Head coach Tricia Cullop signed 6-foot-2 true freshman forward Jessica Cook and 6-foot-5 Indiana transfer Hannah Noveroske. Almost overnight, the Rockets redefined who they were.
"If we faced a bigger team, we were who we were," Cullop said. "We had to double team and do other things to make up for our lack of height. In turn, teams could kick it out and get 3-point shots. This year, we don't have to double as much because we have the size to match up. It should help our defense and our rebounding.
"We were a top-five defensive team in the MAC despite our size. But that was because we doubled really well and we talked really well. This year we're going to match up even better, so I think we'll be a better defensive team than a year ago. But I think offensively is where this will have a big impact. We're going to get easier paint touchpoints, which will open up our 3-point shooters."
A rotation that goes at least 10 or 11 deep is Cullop's hope.
Junior guard Quinesha Lockett thinks Toledo has enough quality players to do a five-on, five-off rotation.
"It's nice to have some big bodies out there," said sophomore forward Sammi Mikonowicz (Rossford). "It's going to be exciting to see what we can do with the depth because we're going to have a more well-rounded team."
Toledo was 12-12 overall last season and 8-12 in the MAC. The ninth-place conference finish was the worst of Cullop's 13-year tenure. Since winning the MAC tournament in 2017, the Rockets are just 34-40 in conference games.
But there's optimism around the program. Practices are loose, players are excited about the coming season, and coaches are confident that UT will be a contender, a position the Rockets have occupied throughout Cullop's career. If Toledo creeps up near the top of the MAC standings this season, it'll start with depth.
"We have a versatile team," Cullop said. "We can go big where we're anywhere from 5-11 at the point to 6-5 at center to smaller lineups that can switch everything defensively and wreak havoc driving. We're better shooters. I just love the versatility of this group. We return four of five starters from last year, and we took care of the biggest need that we had, which was the center position. Not only did we get one, but we have options."
Other new additions include 6-foot guard Nan Garcia from Penn State and 5-foot-9 guard Jayda Jansen from Division II Maryville University in Missouri. Jansen was named Great Lakes Valley Conference defensive player of the year and first-team All-GLVC last season after averaging 19.1 points and 2.6 steals. She's already been singled out by Wiard as someone who will make an immediate impact.
The newcomers will blend with five of the team's top six scorers from last season — Lockett (19.6), Sophia Wiard (13.7), Sammi Mikonowicz (9.2), Khera Goss (6.4), and Soleil Barnes (5.2). Lockett, Wiard, and Mikonowicz were also the team's leading rebounders and turnover creators.
"We're going to be moving a lot faster on the floor," Lockett said. "My defense fuels my offense. If I'm having a good defensive night, then offense comes naturally."
Lockett has already found practices to be more difficult because of the traffic in the lane, a trend she hopes carries over to the season. Wiard has noticed it defensively.
"It's been a really big difference," she said. "You get burnt on defense and you have someone there who can actually help out and maybe swat someone's shot. We look pretty good."
One of the most intriguing pieces is Cook, who was one of the best players in the state of New York the past two seasons. She averaged 20.8 points and 12.6 rebounds as a junior, scoring 20 points in 14 consecutive games. During her senior year, which featured an 11-game schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic, Cook averaged 26.8 points and 13.1 rebounds, never scoring fewer than 21 points.
"She's tough-nosed," Cullop said. "She can hit from the perimeter, but she's a kid who loves contact. I don't say that enough about incoming freshmen, and I don't know the last one I said that about. I love that about her. I love her work ethic. I love her physical mentality and her willingness to get a rebound."
Cook arrived on campus two days after her high school graduation, and the transition to college basketball has come with growing pains, especially on defense. She's been the best player on the court for several years. Suddenly, she's surrounded by players who are on her level or even better — and taller — creating a learning curve.
"It pushes you to be the best you can be," Cook said. "I hope that I'm giving all that I can in practice for that little spot on the team."
Then there's Noveroske, who played sparingly at Indiana after an acclaimed high school career. Her inclusion could be what cements Cullop's preferred inside-out offense and spearheads rapid improvement after back-to-back losing seasons in the MAC.
Already, she's been named a captain by her teammates, a sign of tremendous respect for a player who just entered the program.
"I think it's really hard to be in a leadership position your first year. But it says, No. 1 what a great person she is and No. 2 she won over her teammates in a short amount of time," Cullop said. "Over the summertime, she proved that she's someone they can count on, someone who's going to give everything that she has, and someone that cares about her teammates.
"She has an opportunity to make a really big impact here."