Postseason-Bound, Toledo’s Basketball Future is Bright

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 24th, 2014

A few things become immediately noticeable upon stepping foot in Toledo’s recently-renovated Savage Arena. For one, it’s pretty darn nice — complete with a new Jumbotron, luxury suites and a glass-enclosed dinner lounge, the school’s $30 million investment in 2008 has made the venue an enjoyable place to catch a basketball game. And then there are the banners. Plenty hang from the rafters, sure, but it takes some scanning — past the innumerable NIT and MAC West Division title flags — before your eyes arrive at the centerpiece, just to the right of the Stars and Stripes: ‘NCAA Tournament 1979-80,’ it reads. The fact that it’s been 34 years since Toledo last reached the Big Dance seems genuinely surprising, especially when you consider the current state of the program. Loaded with talent and backed by an energized fan base, the Rockets now look the part of an established MAC powerhouse, poised to compete for league championships and postseason appearances in the coming years. As to whether that multi-decade NCAA Tournament drought comes to an end in 2013-14? That depends on just how far their potent offense can take them.

Head Coach Tod Kowalczyk has turned things around in Toledo. (THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY)

Head Coach Tod Kowalczyk has turned things around in Toledo. (THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY)

Sunday night’s 85-74 victory over Ball State might have perfectly embodied both Toledo’s greatest strengths and most glaring weaknesses so far this season. On the one hand, the Rockets had no problem putting the ball in the basket, scoring 1.27 points per possession and shooting 56 percent from the field. On the other, Tod Kowalczyk’s club allowed one of the worst offensive teams in the MAC its most efficient game yet in conference play. “We didn’t have much energy on defense,” big man Nathan Boothe noted about his team’s effort for a chunk of the contest. But as it’s done so many times this year — it will set the school’s single-season record for wins if it beats Northern Illinois on Wednesday — Toledo’s score-at-will offense simply overpowered its deficiencies on the other end of the court, enabling it to run past the Cardinals in the final three minutes. That firepower is the prevailing reason the Rockets are now 23-4 and currently tied with Western Michigan atop the MAC West standings.

In fact, not only is their offense far and away the best in the conference, but at over 114 points per 100 possessions, it’s among the best in the entire country. A great deal of the success can be attributed to the team’s sheer volume of scoring options and, consequently, its balance — each starter averages between nine and 15 points per game, and any one of them gash you in any given game. On Sunday, the starters accounted for 95 percent of the scoring and all five tallied between 13 and 20 points on the night. The weapons are versatile and abundant. Point guard Juice Brown and senior wing Rian Pearson were both preseason all-MAC West picks, while Justin Drummond and J.D. Weatherspoon — transfers from Loyola (MD) and Ohio State, respectively — are do-it-all forwards who can each pound the ball in the paint and step out and shoot. Boothe, meanwhile, is capable of playing like an all-conference big man in his own right; he went 7-of-9 from the field and scored 17 points against Ball State. When the team receives hefty contributions across the board, it’s nearly impossible to stop, porous defense or not.

If the Rockets can reach their unstoppable peak next month at the MAC Tournament, even greater accomplishments might be on tap for the emerging program. Just four years removed from a 4-28 campaign and only one year out from a postseason ban stemming from low APR scores, Kowalczyk appears to have fully revived Toledo basketball. A 12-0 start garnered the Rockets some national media attention, and with a strong finish to the season they are nearly assured — at worst — an NIT berth. Yet there’s no denying that the Big Dance is the ultimate goal, and there’s no doubt it would be the most palpable affirmation of a program on the rise. And the fourth-year head coach believes his team is headed in the right direction at the right time: “I think our chemistry and togetherness is there, and our defense has gotten consistently better,” he said on Sunday. If he’s right, and the Rockets can play just well enough defensively to continue overpowering teams offensively, a sparkling new banner might take center stage at Savage Arena next season: ‘NCAA Tournament 2013-14,’ it will read.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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