Top of the O26 Class: Horizon League, MAC, MVC, Summit

Posted by Adam Stillman on October 24th, 2014

Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Midwestern region of the U.S: the Horizon, MAC, MVC, and Summit. Previous installments include the Northeast region leagues

TOP UNITS

Horizon League

  • Green Bay – 2013-14 record: 24-7 (14-2) – Green Bay had Cinderella written all over it last season. There was only one problem — the Phoenix were upset in the Horizon League Tournament and were instead relegated to the NIT. The good news? Reigning Horizon Player of the Year Keifer Sykes is back, as are four of the team’s top five scorers. The loss of 7-footer Alec Brown certainly hurts, but Green Bay could find itself in the Big Dance comes season’s end and make up for last year’s abrupt (and disappointing) end.
Keifer Sykes and the Green Bay Phoenix are poised to have a big 2014-15 season. (USAT)

Keifer Sykes and the Green Bay Phoenix are poised to have a big 2014-15 season. (USAT)

  • Cleveland State – 2013-14 record: 21-12 (12-4) – If anybody will challenge Green Bay for Horizon League supremacy, it will be Cleveland State. Losing leading scorer Bryn Forbes is a big blow, as he’s moved on to play at Michigan State for the remainder of his career. However, first team preseason selection Trey Lewis (13.1 PPG) is back, as is Anton Grady (10.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG). Watch out for Creighton transfer Andre Yates, who could end up as the best guard on the team.

MAC

  • Toledo2013-14 record: 27-7 (14-4) – Toledo reeled off 12 straight wins to start 2013 and won a school-record 27 games in all last season. The Rockets faded down the stretch, settling for a NIT berth, but it looks like 2014-15 will be Toledo’s time to shine. With six of their top seven scorers back, led by all-conference guard Julius “Juice” Brown, the Rockets look to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980.
  • Western Michigan – 2013-14 record: 23-10 (14-4) – The Broncos were a nice story last season, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. Let’s forget that they were promptly blown out by Syracuse in the first round. WMU will miss the contributions of do-everything big man Shayne Whittington (16.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG), but star guard David Brown headlines five of the top six returning scorers.

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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.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Toledo, Jerrelle Benimon, UTEP & Chicago State…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 22nd, 2014

The rigors of conference play began taking its toll last week as several O26 league favorites discovered just how hard conference road games can be. Some teams dealt with these hurdles better than others, the results of which ranged anywhere from surprising upsets to crazy comebacks to clutch shots. Let’s pass out a few awards to the performers who handled themselves best during the O26 week that was.

O26 Team of the Week

In part thanks to some Juice Brown heroics, Toledo had an excellent week. (BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH)

In part thanks to some Juice Brown heroics, Toledo had an excellent week. (Jeremy Wadsworth/Blade)

Toledo. First it was the expected-but-still-disappointing loss to Kansas followed by a forgettable defeat at Western Michigan, and all of a sudden the Rockets — once unbeaten and the talk of the mid-major world — were in serious jeopardy of losing their groove. Some teams might have become deflated, lost confidence and continued to slide, but not Toledo. Head coach Tod Kowalczyk remained calm after falling to the Broncos, noting “We didn’t play well in two games all year. This is one of two… we’ll be fine.” His team has responded in similar fashion, handling Central Michigan with ease two Saturdays ago before collecting a pair huge wins this past week to remain the MAC West kings. First was a home contest against surging Buffalo, a squad on a four-game winning streak that looked poised to make it five in a row. The Bulls jumped out to a quick lead in the opening minutes that it wouldn’t hand over until midway through the second half, even then not backing down from the Rockets. A big reason for that was because Javon McCrea was his usual beastly self, finishing with 20 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks and enabling his team to keep pace and ultimately knot things up at 59 with a minute and a half to play. But just when the game appeared to be headed for overtime, Toledo point guard Julius “Juice” Brown made the magic happen, capping off an eight-point, 90 second stretch by receiving the second pass off a full-court inbounds play, hoisting from just inside the arc, and nailing a buzzer-beater to win the game, 67-65. It was one of the most exciting finishes you will see all season and an emphatic completion to an important win for the Rockets.

Despite the mid-week heroics, though, it was Saturday morning’s match-up at Akron that was supposed to provide the drama, with two teams pegged to win their respective divisions in the preseason and each featuring first-team all-conference talent. But as the game wore on, it became more evident that this was not going to be the hotly contested battle many thought — Toledo thoroughly and resolutely outplayed the Zips for much of the 40 minutes, pounding them on both ends of the glass and putting the game completely out of reach midway through the second half. Brown finished with his second straight 20+ point outing, while former Ohio State forward J.D. Weatherspoon — who has emerged as a vital paint presence in recent games — scored 20 points and secured a game-high 14 rebounds. The win was something of a statement for the Rockets, an assertion of dominance over a club predicted by many to win the league and return to the NCAA Tournament this season. Now 15-2, Kowalczyk’s group has regained its status as one of the more dangerous non-power conference teams in America, a position it hopes to maintain through MAC play and into the postseason. The wins over Buffalo and Akron were key steps on that path and important demonstrations of resiliency, earning Toledo our award for Team of the Week.

Honorable Mentions: George Washington (2-0: vs. VCU, @St. Bonaventure); Towson (2-0: @Drexel, @College of Charleston); UTEP (2-0: @Middle Tennessee State, @UAB).

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