Hope is lifeblood of UT basketballWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Hope is a powerful feeling. When the chips are down it can inspire the will to change, and in our darkest moments, sometimes hope is all we’ve got. In their final home game on Mar. 1, the Rockets fell to Central Michigan by a score of 68-56 on Senior Night for their 26th loss and 12th consecutive defeat this season. If Toledo can’t pull out a victory on its’ trip to Eastern Michigan Mar. 5, it will mark the team’s 46th-straight road loss, a streak that dates back to the 2007-08 season.
While the losing strongly suggests that the state of Rockets’ basketball is at an all-time low, all hope is not gone and the program certainly is not at rock bottom. That happened last season, when Toledo compiled a school-worst 4-28 overall record under former head coach Gene Cross. It’s true that if the Rockets can’t muster another win this year that they will indeed tie that record, but it’s also true that it will be under much different circumstances.
Barring any more injuries, Toledo will be closing out the season with just five scholarship players and four walk-on’s at its’ disposal. Freshman guards J.T. Thomas and Reese Holliday suffered season-ending injuries earlier this year, while sophomore guard Curtis Dennis (New Mexico), sophomore guard Rian Pearson (UW-Green Bay), sophomore forward Matt Smith (UW-Green Bay) and junior guard Dominique Buckley (Iowa State) will not be eligible until the 2011-12 campaign as transfers into the Rockets’ program. Despite the struggles, Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk is optimistic for the future of UT basketball.
“The positives I take away is that we’ve got good guys,” Kowalczyk said after the Rockets’ final home game on Mar. 1. “I don’t think we’ve quit. I think we’ve battled and gone through an awful lot of adversity. We knew it was going to be a struggle this year. I thought we could be a little bit better if we stayed healthy and we won a couple close games, but those two things haven’t happened.”
Senior forward Justin Anyijong, who played his final home game as a Rocket on Mar. 1, also believes the program is headed in the right direction under Kowalczyk.
“What Coach TK left on me was just [to] appreciate the moments, just going out there every night and having to compete and leave it all out there on the floor,” Anyijong said after the defeat on Senior Night at Savage Arena. “And the other thing is he has zero tolerance for negativity, and that’s a really positive thing I have taken from Coach TK this year. The future is bright. I believe those guys back there in the locker room will always come out and compete and give us their all.
“We have a lot of transfers. They had to sit out this year, and I had to compete against them every day in practice, and one thing I can say is those guys can play. So I’m very excited for the future of Toledo basketball.”
One player who hopes he’s part of that future is junior walk-on guard Jay Shunnar. Shunnar joined the team as a walk-on in the 2008-09 season and scored a career-high 20 points on Mar. 1.
“I would trade 20 points for 20 wins any day of any year,” Shunnar said after the loss. “I wasn’t trying to leave on a bang or anything like that, no. I was just trying to win. Coming back next year, hopefully I’ll be a senior. These transfers are amazing. They’re really good, but I’m going to be right in there. I’m going to be competing every day. That’s something I’ll do.
“I got on this team and they told me I’m never going to play, and now I’m sitting in front of you guys, so we’ll just see how things go.”
Amid all the questions and uncertainty that loom on the horizon for Toledo, the one constant has been the fans that have continued to show up at Savage Arena. Even though the Rockets have won just 15 total games since the 2008-09 campaign, Toledo still had the second-highest average home attendance in the Mid-American Conference this season as of writing this article. Given the losing and off the court controversy the Rockets have gone through the past few years, all the fans have had is hope when they show up the arena.
Hopefully they’ll see a better team next year.