MAC Basketball Preview 2011-12: Toledo Rockets

To say the last few years have been lean for the Toledo Rockets men's team is like saying one too many Packo's dogs will make you slightly gassy. In fact, while the women's team has enjoyed enormous success under Tricia Cullop, culminating in last year's WNIT championship, the men haven't tasted success for a long time.

It's hard to believe that Stan Joplin's last year coaching the Rockets was the last time they posted double-digit wins. The Rockets finished the 2007-08 year with a 10-18 record, 7-8 in the MAC, on the strength of two straight wins to close out the season. But with the remodeled Savage Hall Arena opening up, the powers that be felt they needed to inject some excitement into the Rockets faithful, and Joplin was shown the door.

That move was nothing short of a disaster. Gene Cross's two years courtside brought a combined 11-51 record, and he limped out of town after his two girlfriends got together for tea like some bad sitcom plot. Tod Kowalczyk comes in to clean up the mess, and he brought his crack cleaning crew along with him: Rian Pearson and Matt Smith (SO MANY DOCTOR WHO JOKES THIS YEAR I CANNOT WAIT) packed their bags and hopped the train with Coach TK to the Glass City, and picked up Dominique Buckley on a layover in Ames, IA. Only problem is, they were forced to ride the pine for a year because of the transfer. So The Tod has to do the best with what he has, and the best they can do is a measly 4 more wins.

This year is supposed to be different. The Green Bay Ringers are in, but a staggering number of players from last year's team have bailed. Is this the year Tod Kowalczyk brings a level of respectability to Bancroft Street?

When you take away the four transfers (the three earlier mentions, and Curtis Dennis, the New Mexico transfer that can't play until after December), there are 3 returning players from last year's team. Malcolm Griffin decided he wasn't going to be overshadowed by the new kids, and took his talents to... somewhere. Seriously, where did Malcolm go? It's like trying to do a Facebook search for Chuck Cunningham. JT Thomas also took off for what I can only assume is the University of Oz, and Hayden Humes was... how do we put this delicately... downsized... after the team lost 3 scholarships because of awful academic numbers. Hayden looks like the only one who landed on his feet; he's on the roster at UIC (and wouldn't you know it, the Flames visit Toledo on November 26. Circle that date). Jay Shunnar left in the middle of the year, Anthony Wright and Justin Anyijong graduated, and Jess Chadwell got sick of being picked on for having a girls name (I'm assuming).

So who's left from last year? Junior F Reese Holliday would be your leading returning scorer (10.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg), alongside junior F/C Delino Dear (8.1 ppg, 5 rpg). Walk-on Richard Wonnell also returns, because he's really tall, and every posse needs an accountant. How much will these three figure into the team's overall plans? Not very much. Looking back to their exhibition against Northwestern (Ohio), Holliday was held out on a coach's decision, Dear had a bucket and 4 boards in 16 minutes, and Wonnell had 4 rebounds in 12 minutes.

So who are these transfers? Pearson and Smith will come in as sophomores. Pearson, a forward, became a bit of a freshman phenom back in Green Bay, averaging double-digit scoring in his last 7 games of the year (he put up a double-double in the exhibition). Smith plays guard, and had some flashes. 10 points here, 9 there, 8 there. He put up 14 against the Little Sisters of Lima. Dominique Buckley is a guard with junior eligibility, and comes to Toledo by way of Iowa State. He saw a lot of pine time with the Cyclones, but his skill set will get him plenty of time with the Rockets. Curtis Dennis, the Junior guard from New Mexico, had 12 points in his first game with the Lobos in 2009, 7 points in his second, and fell off the table. He's another one who'll benefit by stepping into the MAC... when's he's actually able to step in.

Which leads us to the frosh. Five of them are on the roster for Coach Kowalczyk this year, but it could be the most explosive incoming class we've seen in a while. Julius Brown was a four-year letterwinner at Hillcrest High School in Illinois, averaging 19 points per game, and he ran the offense in the exhibition, putting up 20. Ryan Majerle had 1200 career points as a four year starter for Rockford in Belmont, MI, he showed impressively against the NAIA squad as well. Rounding out the newbies are AJ Matthew from Ypsilanti, and walkons Zach Riddle from Dublin, OH and Michael Speicher from Honest-to-Goodness Switzerland. There's also a sophomore walkon, James Ewing (no relation).

What can you expect from the Rockets this year? The talent level alone will lift the team higher than the 4 wins they've tallied two years straight. But with only 13 guys on the roster (and Holliday already in the doghouse, it seems), conditioning will be an issue once again. Coach Kowalczyk is already easing up a bit; not a whole lot of two-a-days headed into the season proper. But seeing as 4 guys had 25+ minutes against an NAIA team, this team might hit the MAC schedule gassed already. Still, the press picked 'em to finish 4th in the West. Cripes, I just want to see more wins from the basketball team than the football team for once.

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