When the Rockets entered their matchup with Mid-American Conference mainstay Kent State on Saturday night at Savage Arena, they were the team the conference thought they were when the 2011-12 campaign began.
In the MAC’s preseason poll, Toledo was picked to finish fourth in the West Division. Entering Saturday’s bout with the Golden Flashes, that’s exactly where UT was at in the standings. The same could not be said for Kent State, who was picked to win the MAC and was tied for third place in the MAC East Division heading into Saturday’s matchup.
Still, the Golden Flashes proved down the stretch why they earned that distinction, while Toledo displayed that its preseason prediction of fourth in the MAC West Division was accurate. UT’s 19 turnovers — 12 in the second half — resulted in 28 points for Kent State, who beat the Rockets by a final of 77-61 in a contest that it led by just four points at halftime.
“I don’t know how many it was in a row, but I think that was the turning point,” Golden Flashes head coach Rob Senderoff said of Toledo’s second half turnovers. “And they have a really young team. And our kids, they’ve been through this league before, and a lot of these guys for Toledo are new. I think they’re going to be really, really good in time, if not by the end of this year.”
Senderoff is partly correct. Perhaps a good indicator of how the game turned out was indeed the starting lineups before the opening tip as Kent State’s featured four seniors and one junior while Toledo’s was composed of one junior, three sophomores and a freshman.
But while there is something to be said for experience, there is also something to be said for talent, and UT is not short in that category in its starting lineup.
Sophomore guard Rian Pearson entered the contest as the MAC’s No. 4 scorer and No. 3 rebounder with averages of 16.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per outing. Junior guard Dominique Buckley and freshman guard Julius “Juice” Brown — both starters — came in with averages of 11.5 and 11.8 points per game, respectively.
However, Pearson (22 points) and sophomore forward Matt Smith (13 points) were the only starters to finish with double figures in scoring as Buckley and Brown combined for 0-16 from the field on the evening.
“They [shot 52.9 percent in the game], but in the half court they probably shot 38 percent,” Rockets head coach Tod Kowalczyk said of the Golden Flashes’ performance. “We just gave them layups in transition. When our starting guards go 0-16 with 12 turnovers, we’re not winning.”
To be fair, everybody has an off night once in awhile. Brown has exceptional quickness, ball-handling skills and court vision for a true freshman, and Buckley is an experienced guard and a good scorer.
Toledo’s biggest problem against Kent State (14-6, 4-3 MAC) wasn’t its turnovers or its youth. As in several losses they have experienced this season, the Rockets biggest detriment in their defeat to the Golden Flashes was their collective confidence — or lack thereof — down the stretch, something Kowalczyk talked about after the game.
“I thought we hung our heads,” Kowalczyk said. “I thought we felt sorry for ourselves, hung our heads and they out-toughed us. I thought Rian Pearson, Matt Smith and Curtis Dennis [competed]. To be honest with you, Juice didn’t play well, but I thought he competed.”
Yes, Toledo is inexperienced — No. 5 in the nation in terms of least experience, as a matter of fact — and Kent State is not. And yes, with just eight scholarship players on the roster, the Rockets don’t have as much depth as most of their opponents.
Despite those issues, though, UT at 10-11 (2- 5 MAC) has already managed to more than double its win output over the last two seasons combined and snap a 27-game MAC road losing streak which dated back to 2008. Which begs the question: Why the lack of collective team confidence when adversity strikes?
When asked if Toledo’s struggles against the Golden Flashes were the result of youth, less experience than its opponent or just something that the team will learn from as the year progresses, Kowalczyk’s response was, “Wish I knew that answer.”
If the Rockets want to compete with the top teams in the MAC down the stretch, they’ll have to find that answer soon. They play at conference leader Akron (14-7, 6-1 MAC) on Wednesday.