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Mike Lopresti | | January 30, 2014

Toledo turnaround


OXFORD, Ohio – Here’s the list of potential troublemakers in March. Otherwise known as the mid-major top 25.

They’re the teams mostly likely to cause headaches for the big boys in the tournament. Wichita State is No. 1. Of course. Gonzaga is No. 2. Actually, the case could be made they’re big boys themselves. It’s a different world out there now in college basketball.

• 12-0 when leading at the half
• 14-1 when shooting 45 percent or better
• 10-0 when holding its opponent under 45 percent from the field
• 15-1 when not being outrebounded by its opponent
• 16-0 when holding its opponent under 80 points
But for true underdog pain-in-the-posterior potential, notice No. 3. A glowing 18-2 record. One of the most productive and balanced offenses in the land. A program living a renaissance, since it was not even eligible for the postseason in 2013, and three calendar years ago, went 4-28.


“We take pride in that recognition because our players have earned it,” coach Tod Kowalczyk was saying of the No. 3 ranking Wednesday night, just after the Rockets beat Miami 83-70. “Three years ago, not one media person gave us a single vote to finish 11th in our league. We were 12th in everybody’s poll.”

Now they’re nearly perfect, with only a very respectable 10-point loss at Kansas, and a road-trap defeat at Western Michigan as blemishes. At last count, the 4-28 team of the recent past was No. 36 in the RPI.
Or as senior Matt Smith said, “Our hard work is finally paying off. To go from one of the worst teams in the NCAA to one of the best is just amazing.”

Maybe this is an example of how far Toledo has come. The Rockets shot 55 percent at Miami Wednesday night, topped 80 for the 13th time, had four players in double figures, won by 13 points and moved to 18-2. Yet Kowalczyk looked at the stat sheet – with its 21 turnovers -- as he would a sink of dirty dishes.

“Carelessness and lack of execution,” he said. “It’s a long season. It’s a journey. Obviously you need to get as many wins as you can. But also, are you getting better? This program and this team has this year. Tonight, we didn’t.

“One really big positive. We won.”

They’ve been doing that a lot lately. Here are some reasons why.

All five starters average in double figures. The Rockets are putting up 83 points a game, and until Wednesday’s sloppiness, had been averaging only 10 turnovers. Their 48.6 team shooting percentage is tied for 18th in the country. They have made 24 more free throws then their opponents have attempted.

And they apparently know their way through tight squeezes. They have played seven games decided by four or fewer points, and won them all.

Ask Kowalczyk what he likes best about his team and the answer is immediate.

“Versatility. We can play so many different ways, we can score from every position and every spot on the floor.”

In 2010-11 – Kowalczyk’s first Toledo season after coming from Green Bay – all the cans were can’ts. Included in the 4-28 pain was a 1-15 record in the Mid-American Conference.
“I aged during that season. My staff aged,” he said. “It was much harder mentally than I ever thought it would be. I thought mentally I could handle it, but it was very hard.”

Not for long, though. The Rockets went 19-17 the next season, and 15-13 last year. But tournament play in 2013 was out of the question because of a poor Academic Progress Rate during some of the pre-Kowalczyk years.

Toledo’s postseason eligibility was restored for 2013-14, and Kowalczyk knew he had a restocked roster just in time. Transfers Justin Drummond (Loyola, Md.) and J.D. Weatherspoon (Ohio State) moved into the starting lineup, with Drummond now the leading scorer and Weatherspoon the top rebounder. Three freshman have carved out substantial relief roles.

The Toledo wave has just kept rolling. Even on a subpar night like Wednesday, the Rockets had seven players score at least eight points.

“We never know who’s going to go off on any given night,” said Smith, who can recall the Toledo dark ages well enough.

“The teams back then were more scattered. This team is more of a family.”

Added Kowalczyk, “I’m just very proud of where our program is and how far it’s come in a short period of time. Give all the credit to the players. They’ve done a tremendous job of never making excuses, never feeling sorry for themselves, and just coming to work every day.”

Plus, only two of the top nine are seniors.

“I’m excited about this team,” Kowalczyk said. “I’m more excited about the future.”

Especially since he can remember the past.

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