College Basketball: Rockets poised for great season despite banWritten by Mike Bauman | | email@example.com
After a year in which it experienced the second-largest turnaround in the country, the Toledo men’s basketball team is poised to make a run at a Mid-American Conference outright title this season.
With all five starters back on a squad that finished 19-17 (7-9 MAC) in the 2011-12 campaign, the Rockets were tabbed as the favorites to win the MAC West Division this year in the conference’s preseason poll.
UT suffered a devastating blow when the NCAA announced in April that the Rockets would be ineligible to participate in postseason play after failing to meet the mandated cutline of 900 for its four-year Academic Progress Rate (APR) score. Though Toledo can’t participate in the MAC Tournament, they still can win the conference’s outright title during the regular season.
“We still have an opportunity and a chance to compete for a championship, to hang banners, to buy rings, whatever it may be,” UT head coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Whatever cliché you want to throw out there, we’re still playing to win a championship, regardless of the postseason.
“Our guys are going to come out and compete every day.”
The NCAA’s Committee on Academic Performance (CAP) denied Toledo’s appeal of a postseason ban, this despite the fact that none of Kowalczyk’s players were part of the low APR scores which led to the ruling. The ban also eliminated three games from UT’s schedule this season in addition to reducing its weekly practice time by four hours each week.
In Kowalczyk’s first season at the helm for the Rockets, the team’s APR score — based on the eligibility and retention of each scholarship student-athlete — rose from a score of 896 to 939. Through the 2011 fall semester, it was a 962.
“The one thing we’ve talked about as a program is because of our situation we’re not going to make excuses,” said Kowalczyk, who signed a contract extension through the 2016-17 campaign in May. “We’re not going to place blame. We’re going to except our penalties with dignity and integrity and move on and learn from it.”
“We’re feeling pretty good,” junior guard Rian Pearson said. “We’re putting that behind us and just looking forward to try to come out with a MAC West championship and just season championship overall, as well.”
Pearson will lead a Toledo attack that returns 83.3 percent of its points, 82 percent of its rebounds and 89.5 percent of its assists from last season. A preseason All-MAC West Division team selection, the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Pearson earned Second-Team All-MAC honors last year after tying for the MAC lead with 16.4 points per game and ranking third in the conference with 8.3 rebounds per game.
An active, athletic player who attacks the paint and gets many second-chance opportunities around the basket, Pearson has also worked on adding an outside shot to his game this offseason.
“He made eight threes all of last year; he’s going to make a lot more than that this year,” Kowalczyk said of Pearson, who also earned Academic All-MAC honors last year. “With that being said, he’s a smart guy and he knows where his bread and butter [is], and that’s going to be as a slasher and as a guy that can score around the basket and get into the paint and get fouled.
“But he’s also a much improved shooter and I encourage him to take open threes, and I will all year long.”
Also expected to have big contributions for UT in the backcourt this year will be senior guard Dominique Buckley and sophomore guard Julius “Juice” Brown. The lone senior and team captain, Buckley shot 41.9 percent from three-point range and 89.5 percent from the free-throw line last season. Brown, meanwhile, is a preseason All-MAC West Division squad member after earning MAC Freshman of the Year honors last year with averages of 11.9 points and 4.9 assists per game.
Rounding out the Rockets’ backcourt will be sophomore guards AJ Mathew and Anthony Rice III, junior guard Reese Holliday, freshman guard Josh Lemons and junior guard/forward Justin Drummond, the last of whom won’t be eligible to play until next season after transferring from Loyola (Md.).
Toledo will need added production from its crop of backcourt reserves after the departure of Curtis Dennis, who transferred to Iona. Dennis averaged 12.7 points and 3.5 rebounds per game for the Rockets last year.
“Now it allows us to have Matt Smith and Reese Holliday — one of those two guys coming off the bench — and both of those guys are capable scores,” Kowalczyk said of making up for Dennis’ production. “AJ Mathew is a guy that we think can give us some production and some minutes, and Josh Lemons has to be able to step in and give us some minutes as well.”
The frontcourt will be led by Smith, a junior forward who led the team with a 54 percent field goal percentage and averaged 8.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last year. He’ll be joined by junior forward/center DeLino Dear, junior forwards James Ewing and J.D. Weatherspoon, junior center Richard Wonnell (Genoa), freshman center Nathan Boothe and freshman forward Aubrey Williams.
A transfer from Ohio State, Weatherspoon won’t be eligible until next season, while Williams is expected to redshirt this season. Just 17-years-old, Williams spent a year at IMG Academy in Florida prior to coming to Toledo and graduated from high school in Maryland two years early at 15-years-old, according to Kowalczyk. Expected to make an immediate impact will be the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Boothe, who is already slated to start for the Rockets.
“He’s our starting center and will be,” Kowalczyk said of Boothe. “I’m excited about him. I think he’s a very good basketball player. He’s got a great feel [for the game], great hands; smart and tough.”
What will be tough for Toledo is its competition to start the season, which begins with road games at Loyola (Ill.) on Nov. 9, Minnesota on Nov. 12 and Northern Iowa on Nov. 14. Those games will be followed by two contests in Fort Myers, Fla., against Samford on Nov. 21 and either Florida Gulf Coast or Alcorn State on Nov. 22. UT won’t play its first home game until Nov. 28 when it faces Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
“It’s going to be tough, but we’re excited about it,” Buckley said. “It’s a challenge for us, and I think it’s just going to get us ready for the MAC play. Last year, we only won two games on the road I think — one or two — and I think that’s going to help us in the long run.”
Among the areas the Rockets need to improve on this season are turnovers and finishing close games. Toledo committed 13.6 turnovers per game and was 4-7 in contests decided by three points or less last season. But after last year’s turnaround with the nation’s fifth-youngest team, Kowalczyk and his players are looking forward to what they can accomplish this season.
“I think we’ve got good guys and good character guys,” Kowalczyk said. “Over the last 14 months, we have the highest GPA in men’s basketball in the Mid-American Conference at a 3.085. I’m proud of that.
“I’m awfully proud of what our guys have accomplished in the classroom, and we’re striving to even get better there. But basketball-wise, we’ve come a long way in probably a very short period of time.”